Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Professor Stuart Weir, Democratic Audit (GI 2)

  This brief note is intended to place the article by Nicholas Jones and me in the New Statesman (21 February 2002) in a broader context. First, Democratic Audit takes the view that official "spin" and the perception of spin damages public confidence both in the democratic process in the UK and, ironically, in the government whose image and policies it is intended to boost. Secondly, the role of special advisers who are employed to communicate with the media on behalf of ministers and the government ("spin doctors") properly provokes fears that their activities endanger the traditional objectivity of the civil service. We hope that the Select Committee will conduct its inquiries with the following broad areas of concern in mind:

    i.  the current framework of communications strategy in government and the role of Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications and Strategy;

    ii.  the relationship between the official release of information through the GICS, special advisers and the Central Office of Information and public access to official information under the Freedom of Information Act 2001 and official secrecy laws;

    iii.  the past practice of the senior civil service, the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS) and special advisers in the management of official information;

    iv.  the primacy of Parliament;

    v.  the importance of government information being conveyed not only without party political bias, but also without bias in the interests of the executive; and

    vi.  above all, the democratic principle that government should give the public and Parliament full and objective information about policy proposals and outcomes.

The relationship between "spin" and the FOI Act 2001

  2.  The government has a two-part communications strategy, one of "spin" and "control" in popular parlance. In more formal terms, the vigorous promotion of government policies through special the GICS, government advertising and special advisers is complemented by the statutory regime governing public access to official information under the FOI Act 2001. In some senses spin may be said to rely on the protection that the FOI Act provides through its exclusions of policy-making, commercial and other sensitive information from disclosure. The regime and the closed nature of government in this country certainly denies citizens and the media from being able to check the veracity and fullness of government's own account.

The political role of the Director of Communications and Strategy

  3.  Alastair Campbell possesses unprecedented powers for an unelected party political adviser. Campbell is Director of Communications and Strategy, and as such he controls the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS) in Whitehall, three 10 Downing Street departments (the press office; the strategic communications unit; and the research and information unit); and since February 2002, even the Central Office of Information. The Central Office of Information is of course the Whitehall agency that handles the marketing, press and television advertising campaigns for government departments; its head now acts as chief adviser on all the government's marketing communications, reporting directly to Campbell.

  4.  Campbell's contract gives him the power to direct government communications and to present the government's affairs "in a political context". He may give orders to civil servants. He attends cabinet meetings and directly advises the Prime Minister. Formally, Alastair Campbell is simply an unelected special adviser. Yet he has become the government's unacknowledged Minister of Information. His aggressively partisan conduct, manipulation of the media and special deals with selected newspapers and journalists go virtually unchecked either by his political master, the head of the civil service or Parliament. And so a party political special adviser, accountable only to the Prime Minister, has the power to re-shape and direct the traditionally impartial Government Information and Communication Service and all government marketing and advertising activities.

The number of special advisers in government

  5.  In January 2000, the Neill Committee recommended that a new Civil Service Act should put a limit on the total number of special advisers that a government can appoint; and pending enactment of an act, should put a total number of special advisers in front of both Houses of parliament for debate. 1 The government has not acted on these recommendations, but 10 Downing Street is uneasy enough about the questions that, for example, the huge rise in the number of spin doctors in Whitehall raise to lie about how many are spin doctors. In his evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee on 23rd June 1998, Alastair Campbell said, "The vast majority (of special advisers) do not have any contact with the press whatever" [our emphasis]. In December, No. 10 informed the committee (through the Cabinet Office) that only eleven of the 81 special advisers in Whitehall were "employed primarily in the area of communications". That "primarily" is a neat weasel word, but even so this statement is blatant misinformation.

  6.  Nicholas Jones, the BBC Political Correspondent, and I applied two tests to determine which of the 81 special advisers in post act as spin doctors: first, do they have "form" (ie, a history of working in the media, party publicity, public relations); and secondly, are they known to brief journalists and talk to the media. Our count is by no means comprehensive, but it is based on regular monitoring of the work of special advisers. Our calculations are supported by a wide cross section of political and other correspondents in both broadcasting and the press. We found eleven special advisers in 10 Downing Street alone who brief journalists; for most of them, this is their primary occupation. In Whitehall as a whole, the count was 37 special advisers who were either primarily employed to manage and protect the government's (or a minister's) image, or ready to do so. So nearly half the roll-call of special advisers are in the business of communication. Every major cabinet minister has his or her own media creature; some have more than one.

The regulation of special advisers

  7.  The Select Committee in its 1998 inquiry into the role of special advisers was clearly uneasy about their media functions and their effect on the civil service, noting tensions between GICS officials and advisers. The committee came down against the appointment of advisers as departmental heads of information and recommended the introduction of a code of conduct for ministers and advisers on contacts with the media2. The Committee on Standards in Public Life made a similar proposal after its inquiry into the work of special advisers3. Initially the government resisted these proposals, arguing that existing rules adequately met the needs for control and co-ordination4. However the government changed its view5 and published a code for special advisers in July 20016.

  8.  The code did not introduce significant controls over the activities of special advisers, but added to "the sorts of work a special adviser may do" in article 3:

    ix.  representing the views of their Minister to the media including s Party viewpoint, where they have been authorised by the Minister to do so;

  and amplifies this in two further clauses. Clause 8 provides that

    8.  Special advisers are able to represent Ministers' views Government policy to the media with a degree of political commitment that would not be possible for the permanent Civil Service. Briefing on purely party political matters should however be handled by the party machine.

  Clause 9 requires that "all contacts with the media" should be authorised by the departmental minister; that they should be conducted in accordance with the official Guidance on the Work of the Government Information Service; and that the departmental Heads of Information (who are officially given full responsible for managing departmental press and publicity operations) should be informed of special advisers' contacts with the news media.

  9.  Plainly, new article 3(ix) legitimises the very activity of special advisers that has caused public and Parliamentary concern and that had no explicit endorsement in the Model Contract: namely, briefing the media. Despite this explicit reference, such media activity remains hard to encompass, in the view of some constitutional lawyers7, within the scope of "only providing advice to a Minister" which is one of the defining legal characteristics of a special adviser under the Civil Service Order in Council under which they are supposed to operate.

  10.  The requirement that the media activity of special advisers should be carried out in accordance with the Guidance on the Work of the Government Information Service provides formal safeguards. But it must in practice be read subject to a special adviser's general licence to act, unlike a civil servant, in a politically committed way. Thus the significant rule in the Guidance—that information activities "should not be, or liable to misrepresentation as being, party political"—simply does not apply. However the rule that information given should be "objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical" could in theory have a disciplinary effect if it were genuinely applied. But as Professor Daintith points out in his Public Law note, "tendentious or polemical" information

    . . . is precisely the sort of material (as opposed to information with a party political slant) that some ministers appear to have looked for from their information directorates and been unable to obtain, turning to special advisers instead. 8

  Professor Daintith points out that it was this sort of material, which contributed to Ms Jo Moore's disgrace; and which led the DTI Select Committee to complain about the misleading information that the DTI made public9. Her conduct was in general by no means untypical of that of government spin doctors and her former minister has a ready-made substitute in Dan Corry, his second special adviser who had done most of his media briefings after 11th September 2001 (though she was responsible for the first media briefing to identify and brand trade union leaders as being among the "wreckers" that Stephen Byers referred to in his speech to the Labour party's local government conference in Cardiff in February).

  11.  There are also for example numerous examples of "tendentious and polemical" conduct on the part of Mr Campbell himself as well as frequent breaches of the requirement under the special advisers' model contract to "use discretion and avoid controversy". Further, the code prohibits the use of "official resources for party political purposes", yet the media reported his use of official resources when he took the lead role in December 1999 in organising and publicising the defection to Labour of the former Conservative MP, Shaun Woodward. Undoubtedly, the most distasteful aspect of his work is the "smearing" and bullying of those who criticise the government, as various observers have complained. This process was highlighted in the media coverage of the dismissal or forced resignation of Martin Sixsmith, who was apparently warned by senior officials that if he publicised his version of the affair, he would run foul of the "Downing Street smear machine".

  12.  The code does attempt to clarify the relationship between special advisers and GICS staff, emphasising the managerial role of departmental Heads of Information and their role as departmental guardians of the Guidance. Nevertheless, the code does not prohibit the kinds of pressure that special advisers commonly exert on information officers, often junior, nor the general influence they can bring to bear on the ethos and approach of information directorates, especially under the hard-sell era inaugurated under the Campbell regime (sanctioned as the more vigorous New Labour approach to communications was in the Mountfield review10).

  13.  Article 22 gives any civil servant who believes that a special adviser has exceeded her or his authority, or has breached the civil service code, to raise the matter immediately with the Secretary to the Cabinet or the First Civil Service Commissioner directly or through a senior civil servant. The fact that complaints at the DTLR were first conveyed through departmental channels, and then subsequently via a leak, suggests that this safeguard inspires little confidence internally.

The subversion of the Government Information Service

  14.  Concern about the subversion of the GICS under the New Labour government is amply justified. Here special advisers have played a pivotal role. Sir Richard Wilson, the head of the civil service, and other mandarins repeatedly assert that it is inconceivable that special advisers could "corrupt and politicise the senior civil service of 3,700 or a civil service of 466,500". In fact, given the great pressures for improved "presentation" of the government's policies that Alastair Campbell and the Prime Minister have exerted within Whitehall, it is entirely conceivable that the influence of the spin doctors, alongside ministers, does contribute to the corruption of the senior civil service.

  15.  But special advisers certainly possess more direct influence over the GICS. There are only 240 GICS officials—thus the ratio of influence between special advisers and information officers is just 1:3 and 1:6 between spin doctors and GICS officials. Within months of Labour's 1997 general election victory, ministers began creating a working environment within which the new network of special advisers could exercise real influence on the work of government information officers. First, they rubbished the quality of service they received and demanded in Campbell's words, that they "raise their game". Secondly, within a year they had eased out nine of the 17 heads of information and directors of communications; a year later all but two had either been removed or had left government. The new emphasis was consolidated when Sir Robin Mountfield, permanent secretary in the Office of Public Service, re-wrote the rule book for government information officers in November 1997 and endorsed the Campbell hard-sell strategy. Under the new rule-book, GIS officials were now instructed to "grab the agenda" and to "trail" information on government initiatives, a process that was bound to pre-empt the basic constitutional rule that policies, white papers and other documents should first be announced by ministers in Parliament.

  16.  The cull of senior posts and Mountfield's implicit endorsement of ministers' complaints against their work shook the confidence of the GICS and inspires the kind of resentment that has been a feature of the "civil war" at the DTLR. It is certainly true that the service was not geared to the dynamics of the 24 hours news cycle and the competitive media market; nor were its officials skilled in the arts of courting favourable journalists and news outlets, and bullying the less congenial, as are Mr Campbell and his New Labour acolytes. It was right to expect them to master the news agenda; but an impartial public service should not practice the arts of manipulative spin nor should it pre-empt announcements to Parliament.

  17.  The Mountfield review gave special advisers more influence over the flow of information from their departments. Previously, press officers had generally refused to comment on "speculative" stories. Now ministers' special advisers could spin their gloss on departmental policies in order to gain a favourable press, safe in the knowledge that the leaks they gave to friendly journalists would be backed up by the government machine. But spin doctors are also cast as the models for government information officials and they often advise them on how to present information. Jo Moore's September 11 memo was shameful. But its deeper significance was that she, a political appointee, was advising professional civil servants to "bury" bad news. She had also previously instructed GICS officials to brief against Bob Kiley, London's transport commissioner. On both occasions, she of course exceeded her authority, but she is by no means the only special adviser who has done so.

  18.  Mr Campbell has gone on to consolidate New Labour's grasp of the official information service through the recruitment to senior posts within GICS. Career civil servants have been repeatedly passed over as senior positions have gone to journalists and external media professionals. On our count, seven directors and departmental heads have been recruited from newspapers and broadcasting organisations because of their known sympathies for the Blair administration. Three senior posts have gone to former Labour Party press officers; two to journalists from Mr Campbell's former newspaper,the Daily Mirror (which has also supplied two special advisers).

  19.  Mr Campbell and his lieutenants work within a tightly-knit network of media contacts and cronies who are able to out-manoeuvre the formalities of civil service appointments, especially under the criteria for the GICS formulated by Mr Campbell and endorsed by Sir Robin Mountfield. Preferred media workers are moved effortlessly between civil service departments and party headquarters. When the last election was called, Tony Blair could count on a highly-trained cadre of media professionals who gave up their temporary civil service posts as special advisers and moved straight into New Labour's election campaigning. The other parties had no comparable force to throw into the ring.

  20.  The significance of such appointments is that links are being created between the GICS and the cadre of special advisers with media duties. The newly-recruited professionals and spin doctors share a sympathy with the New Labour project, a common purpose and the same "hard-sell" ethic. They very often know each other and have previously worked together. Though the new civil servants are not given the same licence as special advisers to give a party political spin to their communications work, there is anecdotal evidence that ministers do on occasion expect professional civil servants to cross the line, and that they do so. Nicholas Jones records examples of this in his latest book on spin doctors11.

  21.  The official protestations of Sir Richard Wilson that the information service is not being politicised ring hollow against the realities of what is happening. Sir Richard assured the Select Committee in February 2000 that all the appointments were made "by proper open competition" and rigorous assessed under the direction of the Civil Service Commission; "in other words, they are not political appointments". But formal safeguards are not proof against the determination of Campbell and his master, Tony Blair, to recruit like-minded and sympathetic media professionals both for Millbank and Whitehall. Moreover, civil servants have often been dragged into the political fray. For example, in May 2000 the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, took his civil service press secretary, Derek Plews, to brief journalists outside a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party; previously this had always been the responsibility of party press officers. In May 2001, the day after the general election was announced, Mr Campbell was supported by Downing Street's deputy press secretary, Godric Smith, at a lobby briefing where journalists were handed copies of Labour's latest pledge cards. Smith, who is a civil servant, should not have attended what was clearly a party political event. Under current rules, it was presumably the responsibility of the minister present in the lobby room, Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Social Security, to overrule Mr Campbell and remind him of the official guidance.

Disciplining the processes of spin

  22.  What baffles many observers is that Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, seems powerless to stop the process of politicisation; and, indeed, that he and other senior bureaucrats often seem to collude at least in obscuring the spread of spin throughout government. The roots of official weakness lie in the long-established traditions of "news management" within the senior civil service itself. Official secrecy in British government was first formalised to give the senior bureaucracy monopoly control of the release of government information and to prevent ordinary civil servants from passing on information. Control of information was power—their power; national security had scarcely anything to do with it. In more modern times, senior civil servants have readily used their powers over the release of information to manipulate the media and mislead Parliament and the public. The Scott report contains example after example of officials practising the black arts of spin and deceit; the Treasury press release on the Scott report was itself a masterly exercise in misinformation12. Moreover, the interests of the senior service and government and its ministers have long since fused in a mutual protection pact. Both regard the media with fear and loathing, and the House of Commons with contempt. It is part of the duties of civil servants around ministers to advise them on the release and presentation of official information, and where and when to "bury" it if need be.

The past role of GICS officials

  23.  Government information officers have in practice always been in an ambiguous position insofar as their media briefing activities are concerned. For example, Michael Heseltine, as John Major's deputy in 1996, said that in practice government information officers were in a "marginally different position" from civil servants as a whole. In evidence to the then Public Service Committee, he said they should not cross the party politics frontier, but added:

    Information officers have under both parties been in a position of articulating government policy in perhaps a more committed way than you would expect from the rest of the civil service. That they have always done . . . Information officers constantly are defending government policy which might be considered political. It is not their job to avoid controversy. 13

  On The World Tonight (BBC Radio 4, 25 February 2002), Bernard Ingham. Mrs Thatcher's former press secretary, said that he had seen his responsibility as providing information with a "gloss" in favour of government policy.

  24.  Thus, for senior bureaucrats like Wilson and Mountfield, the Campbell revolution was not unwelcome insofar as it "raised the game" of the official information service. Effective presentation of the government's business benefits the civil service and executive as well as their party masters. Thus Sir Richard, like Sir Robin Butler before him, has not drawn the dividing line between what is legitimate and what is illegitimate to protect the impartiality and openness of government communications with Parliament and the public. It is a given that "good government" demands room for manoeuvre and evasion. Rather Sir Richard Wilson has ostensibly tried to draw a boundary between the contractual right of Mr Campbell and spin doctors to release information "within a political context" and any "party political" activity. The distinction became more artificial still after Mr Campbell took the lead role in organising and publicising the defection to Labour of the former Conservative MP, Shaun Woodward. After complaints from Conservative MPs, Sir Richard "reminded" Campbell that in future he should conduct his party work "at lunch-time or outside office hours" and ignored his casual and publicised use of official resources in doing so.

  25.  It is true that the Cabinet Secretary is in an invidious position. Under the loose unwritten constitution, the Prime Minister and the ministers he appoints rule; ministers need not even be elected. The function of civil servants, even the very highest, is to serve the Prime Minister and his ministers. The Civil Service Management Code makes it clear that the formal duty of loyal service to the Crown is owed, "for all practical purposes", to the government and ministers of the day. Thus Mr Campbell is untouchable so long as he retains the Prime Minister's confidence. Sir Richard Wilson can only rap Campbell's knuckles from time to time, and he is pretty reluctant even to do that. He could not even insist that Jo Moore should be dismissed so long as she was protected by her minister's patronage and Stephen Byers in turn enjoyed the Prime Minister's confidence. On 1st November 2001 the Cabinet Secretary, told your Committee that she was not entitled to "line manage civil servants or give them instructions". However, he conceded he was powerless to discipline special advisers like Ms Moore who retained the confidence of their minister and had the continued backing of the Prime Minister. Sir Richard said that as head of the civil service he had "no role in relation to specific disciplinary issues relating to special advisers", other than those attached to ministers in the Cabinet Office.

  26.  But the fact is that Sir Robin Butler, Wilson's predecessor, sold the pass immediately he agreed with the Prime Minister to allow Mr Campbell to combine the communications brief with an active political role and powers to give orders to civil servants. It is also true that the politicisation of government communications has been on the increase since Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies in the 1930s, and grew more intense under Sir Trevor Lloyd-Hughes and Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's press secretaries—Haines became the more notorious, but Lloyd-Hughes was known in the late 1960s as "the demon"—and course Bernard Ingham. Perhaps the political tide is now irresistible. Certainly, Sir Richard Wilson is not inclined to play Canute. And as Professor Anthony King has warned, incoming governments are far more likely to exploit than renounce the propaganda gains made under the Prime Minister and his alter ego.

The constitutional issues and recommendations

  27.  Alastair Campbell derides the constitutional issues that his presence, powers and conduct, the swarm of spin doctors throughout Whitehall and the infiltration of the GIS undoubtedly raise as unworldly concerns with mere "process". He argues forcibly that it is government policies that have substance in the real world; and that his task is simply to ensure that those policies are presented to the public undistorted by spin from the media. But "process" is the very substance of democracy and the rule of law in this country. In the absence of a written constitution, proper process and procedures matters even more—"they are all the poor Englishman has," as a former senior civil servant once said. They are in fact all we have to protect us from arbitrary and deceitful rule.

  28.  In 1989, the then Institute of Professional Civil Servants (IPCS), the professional association of information officers, drew up a draft code of ethics, saying that it was "the responsibility of Information Officers in the Government Service to describe and explain Government policies; it is not their function to justify or defend them"; that "Information Officers in Government Service should avoid identification with the political philosophy of any particular administration"; and that they should not "distort or suppress information for reasons of political expediency, advertising or sponsorship".

  29.  The long-term drift in the application of strict rules of conduct for the dissemination of official information has to be brought to an end before it is too late. There is sufficient concern for proper standards of impartiality andf objectivity among professional civil servants and GICS officials to bed down reforms. Democratic Audit recommends:

    (a)  The IPCS rules should be inscribed in a new Civil Service Act, alongside new rules governing the number and conduct of special advisers, and outlawing hybrid contracts like Mr Campbell's;

    (b)  There should be a strict separation between the roles of the Prime Minister's press secretary and the heads of the GICS and CIO; and any cross-over of political appointees to head or have direct influence over the operations of the government information services should be prohibited;

    (c)  Since it is virtually impossible to supervise the media activities of special advisers, they should be confined to giving advice to ministers and all "politically committed" media work should be undertaken by party press officials; and special advisers should be prohibited from instructing or advising GICS staff

    (d)  There is an urgent need within British government for an authoritative "guardian role" over improper conduct by ministers, special advisers and other ad-hoc appointees. The present position, under which the Prime Minister is the ultimate authority, is unsatisfactory. The PASC or the Committee on Standards in Public Life should review the situation once again;

    (e)  The current party-political frontier between what is acceptable and unacceptable in government communications is artificial and probably unenforceable; and is anyway drawn in the wrong place. The former IPCS draft recommendation that it is the role of GICS officials to "explain and describe" government policies, and not to "justify or defend them", should become the new frontier

    (f)  A genuine public right of access to government information should buttress such reforms under a reformed FOI law, which made information on government policies, alternative policy options, policy data and government and public dealings with commercial organisations available to the public on request.

Professor Stuart Weir,

Democratic Audit, University of Essex

February 2002


  1 Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Reinforcing Standards (2000, Cm 4557).

  2 Sixth Report of the Select Committee on Public Administration, The Government Information and Communication Service (1997-98, HC 770).

  3 Reinforcing Standards, see n.1 above.

  4 Special Second Report of the Select Committee on Public Administration (1998-99, HC 162).

  5 Response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life (2000, Cm 4817).


  7 such as for example Professor Terence Daintith; see his Analysis note in Public Law, Spring 2002.

  8 See n.6 above.

  9 Thirteenth report of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry (1998-99, HC 330).

  10 Office of Public Service (Cabinet Office), Report of the Working Group on the Government Information Service (the Mountfield review) (1997).

  11 Jones, Nicholas, The Control Freaks: How New Labour Gets its Own Way, Politico's (2001).

  12 House of Commons, Report of the Inquiry into the Export of Defence Equipment and Dual-Use Goods to Iraq and Related Prosecutions (the Scott report), (HMSO, 1996); see, for example, the detailed account in Norton-Taylor, Richard, et al, Knee Deep in Dishonour: the Scott report and its aftermath, (Gollancz, 1996).

  13 Public Service Committee, Role and Responsibilities of the Deputy Prime Minister (Michael Heseltine's evidence) (28th February 1996, HC 265).

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