Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Let me now turn very briefly to what I think the media need to be doing. The media need to take a balanced and nuanced view of the matter in question. Rather than blow up isolated remarks, constantly looking for a gaffe by politicians and jumping on it, which makes politicians nervous—rightly so—and

7 May 2009 : Column 749

prevents any kind of public debate, they should learn to ignore these isolated remarks and concentrate on the central issues. Nor should they be one-sided and concentrate only on discrediting institutions. When individual politicians or Members of Parliament misbehave, obviously they should be exposed, but not in such a way that the institution gets discredited. Take, for example, the debate about MPs’ and Peers’ expenses. Naturally, some people have misbehaved and this needs to be exposed, but at the same time, it is equally true that there are several Peers I can think of easily who attend regularly but never claim their attendance allowances. I also know Peers who are entitled to travel first class by train, but prefer to travel standard class. When people are told only one side of the story and not the other, an impression is created that all Peers and all MPs are out for their own benefit, which is not the case at all.

The second important thing to bear in mind about the media is that journalists should be subject to the same norms of public decency as public figures. We in Parliament declare situations where there is a conflict of interest. I can think of many cases where journalists write about matters where they have business, political or ideological interests. Would it not be proper that they should declare their business and other interests and not work or write on subjects that involve conflict of interests? There has to be a sharp separation between facts and opinions. Facts should be rigorously checked, and prompt corrections—not delayed corrections in the corner of a newspaper, but prompt and prominent corrections—should be available when so-called facts are proved to be wrong.

I have also often thought that the idea of cross-party parliamentary committees, holding public meetings where editors of major media might be asked to explain their coverage of public events, might have something to be said for it. Just as we have Select Committees where Ministers are cross-examined, I do not see any reason why editors or producers of major programmes cannot be cross-examined and asked to explain why they took a particular stand or represented the event in a particular manner.

An independent and publicly funded body could also be set up to audit periodically media coverage of important events and public figures, and to grade different media on a scale of objectivity and accuracy. This is what we do in relation to schools when we name and shame them. Why should not the same policy be applied to the media and other vehicles of information?

It is striking that in a recent survey just under 10 per cent of those interviewed trusted national newspapers, but 70 per cent trusted the publicly regulated broadcast television and radio. The point I want to make is this: the media cannot just be private business. They wield public power; they influence public opinion; they shape the alternatives that the Government consider, and in so doing shape the policy of the Government; and, even when they are privately owned, they are public institutions. They should therefore be guided by basic norms of public accountability. Such norms should be voluntarily enforced as far as possible, but, when

7 May 2009 : Column 750

necessary, I do not see any reason why they should not be subjected to sensitively calibrated and sensitively enforced legal constraints.

4.51 pm

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity, not least at a time when respect for all politicians is low, to debate the recommendations of our Select Committee on Communications, and particularly to follow the excellent contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh.

We also have the Government’s response, which I am afraid I must describe as somewhat meagre and rather dismissive. As a member of that Select Committee under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I found the evidence we heard informative, certainly, but also, when read together with our recommendations, it could be seen as a useful basis for further improvement within government departments. Certainly, that was not adequately recognised, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has already said.

Perhaps the two most important aspects of how government communicate their policies and campaigns to their citizens through the media are: first, how effectively and impartially they achieve this; and, secondly, that announcements should be made as widely available as possible for use via all relevant communication channels.

Although there have been improvements to how government communications are delivered as a result of both the 1997 Mountfield report and the 2005 Phillis report, there is little doubt that more needs to be done; and that need will probably continue for some time. One suspects that trailing announcements before they were delivered to Parliament did indeed take place in the past and that it still happens today—as does leaking such information to perhaps more friendly members of the media. Equally, from the evidence we heard, it is likely that on some occasions in the past “difficult” journalists have been excluded from briefings relevant to their own area of expertise. Clearly, every effort must continue to be made to eliminate that kind of behaviour.

Most of the issues raised in our report have already been more than adequately covered by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. I can only concentrate my few remarks on underlining some particular areas, which I hope the Government will revisit.

I, too, hope it will be possible for the Government to find ways to publish the annual cost of each government department's communications campaigns—and, indeed, the Government’s—and whether that cost has increased or decreased. The Select Committee heard evidence that the reason this has not been easy is the difficulty in separating this aspect of a department’s spending from the rest of its work. Of course, that is understandable and we have already heard why. However, it is increasingly important for citizens to know this for a number of reasons, many of which have already been mentioned.

One example is certainly the involvement of special advisers who, although bound by the code of conduct for special advisers, are nevertheless appointed as supporters of the Government and are not civil servants.

7 May 2009 : Column 751

It is certainly helpful that the Government’s response to the Select Committee has accepted, as we have heard, that each Minister, who is ultimately responsible for their special advisers’ conduct, should also have copies of the relevant code supplied to them. Again, as we have heard, in light of the recently exposed disgraceful behaviour of Mr Damian McBride, that decision was clearly wise.

Secondly, the lobby system and ways in which it could be improved have been more than adequately covered in the report and subsequently. However, I urge that major press conferences—and as much government information as possible, once Parliament has been informed—should be made available on all media platforms, including TV and the internet. Frankly, the more that we have that done, the better.

It is certainly an important step, that it is now policy that civil servants in charge of communications within each government department should increasingly be of a senior rank. Indeed, it is perhaps significant that those seen as high flyers in the Foreign Office have often held this kind of role in other government departments, as well as in the FCO itself, as part of their career development for high office.

Thirdly, although there are plans afoot to improve the service provided for regional and local media, if more government information of this kind is made generally available on more media outlets, including the internet, the easier it will be for local journalists and broadcasters to do their job effectively.

Finally, I support the points that I know other noble Lords will be making later on about the need to achieve a more effective partnership with the third sector. The very fact of the partnership with the third sector is, to me, excellent news. I come from a time when the third sector was not exactly seen by Labour Governments as part of the team at all. It was increasingly seen as taking jobs from other people rather than as playing the important role that is recognised today.

In their response, the Government point to the increasing role of the Office of the Third Sector, with its 43 third-sector strategic partners, and to the work of the Government Communication Network. I emphasise the point that was made so effectively by CABs in their evidence to us on the need to consult with them early when planning campaigns, such as the take-up of tax credit schemes, which will involve their expertise. When this is done, a far more effective delivery partnership can take place, which is of real benefit to the Government and, indeed, to the third sector partner and the client citizen. Vitally, however—and this really is my last point—the third sector must also be given the resources to do its job effectively.

4.59 pm

Baroness Eccles of Moulton: My Lords, I, too, would like to thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for ensuring that the debate on this report takes place, and for his excellent chairmanship of our committee. We said in the report’s introduction that its purpose was to consider what progress has been made since the Phillis review was published in 2004, and to make recommendations for further improvements.



7 May 2009 : Column 752

The Phillis review report suggested seven main principles that should underpin all government communications, two of which are:

“Use of all relevant channels of communication, not excessive emphasis on national press and broadcasters”,

and,

“Co-ordinated communication of issues that cut across departments, not conflicting or duplicated departmental messages”.

These principles are relevant to the two subjects that I would like to address: first, regional newspapers and, secondly, the voluntary sector, concentrating on Citizens Advice and its bureaux. Here, I shall re-emphasise some of the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, made in her final remarks. As an aside, it is worth noting that the voluntary sector is now absorbed into the third sector, thereby disguising in its title the all-important function of volunteering.

Regional newspapers are already having a hard time owing to increasing competition from all sorts of digital media, even before the rapid shrinking of the economy which is affecting so many sectors. This makes it more important than ever that they should be able to receive timely news from government sources and not be regarded as an afterthought. Opinions vary on how much improvement there has been in communication with the regional press media over the past five years. Some say that there has been very little; others say that the quantity has improved but not the quality. This arises partly from a lack of understanding of the role or needs of the regional press, and the need for more media literacy among some of the press office teams in Whitehall and elsewhere.

Another comment was that regional press releases can so often be copies of national press releases with a few local statistics added on, a far cry from the Phillis suggestion that each region should be able to do more than simply regurgitate Whitehall press releases.

A suggestion was made that each region should have a cross-departmental head of communications who is based in the region and who understands it. This person should be both confident and well-informed enough to be able to brief quickly on a range of subjects. This suggestion is very much in line with the Phillis principle of communicating issues that cut across departments.

A widely held view is that relations between the regional newspapers and government departments vary greatly. They can be very good when a department and the region have interests in common, and where the ministerial team realises the importance of regional media. Difficulties can arise when people working in departmental press offices have no idea how newspapers work and struggle to deal with deadlines.

A frequent cry of pain can be heard from journalists who are sent from pillar to post. They start off calling the government press office, believing that is where the information is, only to be told to ring the regional office, which tells them that they are talking to the wrong people and should ring Whitehall. As a result what should have been a simple process becomes mired in confusion. Also, press offices in certain departments can be elusive and are keen to end a call as quickly as possible rather than try to be helpful. However, there is some good news: When press officers

7 May 2009 : Column 753

have been journalists themselves, they have a greater understanding of what is needed. Some departments take the initiative and will contact journalists with story ideas. Regional media emergency forums can produce clear and useful communications.

To summarise, the recommendation in our report that addresses the problems that I have just highlighted says that regional press officers should be trained to have a better understanding of regional and local media, that they should become more proactive in their engagement with the sector, and that more senior officials and Ministers should be available for interviews. The government response says that the Permanent Secretary for Government Communications is committed to improving the level of engagement with local journalists and producers. As this is a huge commitment that affects all government departments, could the Minister please tell me in his response how successful this far-reaching commitment is likely to be?

I turn now to Citizens Advice and its relations with government communications, although some of the comments will apply equally to others, especially umbrella organizations in the voluntary sector.

Before going any further, I shall provide a few statistics, but I promise that they are the only ones that I shall mention. They are important because they emphasise the size and reach of the citizens advice bureaux and illustrate the important contribution that they make. The bureaux dealt with nearly 2 million clients who presented about 5.5 million problems in 2007-08. Adviceguide, the Citizens Advice public information website, had about 9.5 million visitors with problems in the same year. There are 426 member bureaux with 16,000 volunteer staff, who all have to be trained; 4,000 new volunteers are trained each year, but it is made clear that many volunteers stay for a long time. The volunteer recruitment line received 12,000 new applications last year. This must show that the voluntary sector is alive and kicking.

The reason why the word “bureau” has been dropped from the CAB’s official title will be that much of the advice it now gives is on its public information website, Adviceguide, which, as well as providing direct advice, is also able to guide the user with links to relevant government information. However, it is made clear that this is not a case of one-size-fits-all. This is amply borne out by the number of inquiries made in person at the bureaux.

On the government side, establishing Directgov as a single website portal is aimed at providing a starting point for individuals needing to find information about all government services and reducing the hassle of multiple sites with different designs and organisational approaches. However, logging on to Directgov cannot overcome the lack of co-ordination between government departments or the complexity of form filling that challenges the individual inquirer or claimant. Also, a departmental website to which a link was provided by Directgov might appear inscrutable. For instance, the user might want an update on leaflets and find that

7 May 2009 : Column 754

there is nothing there. However, it is reassuring to note that Revenue and Customs is an exception, as it provides useful lists of leaflets and what has replaced them.

The helpfulness or otherwise of the internet, whether it is Citizens Advice’s Adviceguide, or the Government’s Directgov, is inevitably restricted to the computer-literate who have internet access. Sections of the population cannot use these sources of information for other reasons, and they need to be able to talk to someone who can help them. CAB service users come from a variety of backgrounds, which will be familiar. Face-to-face users are most likely to be within the C2, D and E social classes, have long-term illness, live in social housing and/or are over 60. Added to these categories are those who cannot read or write, have mental health problems or do not speak English very well. That is a formidable list. As more and more government information is switched to the internet, departments must recognise how important it is for Citizens Advice to be able to keep its bureaux up to date.

Changes to legislation which have to be communicated to the public by the Government often involve the CAB service as a distribution channel. It would be sensible for the government department concerned to bring Citizens Advice into the planning at an early stage. In this way, based on its experience, it can advise on whether the campaign makes sense and when it might be best to run it. Sometimes statutory instruments are published at the last minute, which does not leave enough time for amendments to CAB’s guidance to be published for the use of advisers and the public before the law is in force.

Also, Citizens Advice needs support from government departments to check their material and to make sure that they get accurate information out to the bureaux in time. It finds departments’ responses to this appeal for help inconsistent, which can often make it difficult to meet deadlines.

Citizens Advice could help with the problem of unclaimed credits and benefits is very important, especially in view of the summing up of the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Myners, in today’s debate on the economy, in which he stressed the value of pensions. In the opinion of Citizens Advice, more could be done to find ways of distributing the £3 billion of unclaimed pension credit. That is such a large figure. It believes that a shared strategy could be crafted which would mean more openness and partnership between government and organisations it could trust to find new ways to reach those who are not responding to present methods. That will not happen unless the Government really want it to. Citizens Advice believes that this would be an excellent example of government communications really making a difference.

At a time when the Government are relying more and more on the internet for communicating with the public, special attention must be paid to the needs of those who cannot be reached by the web. The local voluntary services in general, and Citizens Advice in particular, are able to meet this need. They in turn are reliant on the Government making sure that they have prompt and accurate access to new information. Allied to this is the need for departments to involve the

7 May 2009 : Column 755

voluntary sector in forward planning and also being prepared to check their material for accuracy so that it can be disseminated in good time. I would be grateful if the Minister could reassure me that these matters are being taken seriously by government departments and that progress is being made in these important areas.

5.11 pm

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I will come to our esteemed chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, at the end of my speech. I want to begin by commending the contribution of my noble friend Lord Parekh. He is not a member of the Communications Committee, but his measured and non-partisan analysis of the appalling political culture into which we have sunk in the past few years could make one feel—as I often do these days—like cutting one’s throat, while at the same time giving one a reason to feel that perhaps all is not lost and that we can recover from this slough of despond into which we seem to have fallen. Perhaps then we can find ways of making those of us directly involved in the political process, those commenting on it and the public whom we all seek to serve not only feel better but look better.

I intend to make a very short contribution to the debate, not least because most things have already been said, as is inevitably the case when you are the tail-end Charlie. I want to make three brief points. First, I do not want to get too far into the vexed territory of special advisers. I think that enough has been said on that subject here and, unfortunately, elsewhere. I am sure that your Lordships will be glad to hear that I do not feel compelled to add to that quantum, nor do I want to go too much into “on the record” and “off the record” briefing, which was none the less an interesting element of some of the evidence we heard. I would recommend to noble Lords who have not read the report in detail to look at that evidence, particularly from some of the journalists. However, I will just observe that the tension between the wish of any Government to be open and their anxiety to be in control of the interpretation of their policies has been around a long time. It seems to me unlikely that it will ever go away, no matter what forms of structures are put in place. When this tension is allied to a natural journalistic fondness for having an inside track, the phenomenon of the unattributable briefing and the prevalence of unnamed “senior sources” will continue to influence our perception of how we are governed as it comes to us via the media.

I would refer your Lordships to the evidence we heard from the respected Guardian journalist, Jackie Ashley. Speaking of her off-the-record contacts, she said:

“What they say to me when they know it is unattributable is what they actually think ... What do I do as a journalist? Do I say I will not take an unattributable quote, so I am not going to represent what you and a lot of your colleagues are saying, or do I say I will only take something with your name to it, in which case I am not giving the readers a true sense of what is happening in Parliament?”.

I refer to that quote because what it points up is that we all live to some extent in an ambivalent relationship to the way that information is conveyed. We want to

7 May 2009 : Column 756

feel, when we read about the Government—any Government—in the newspapers or on websites or wherever, that we are getting information that the Government do not want to give us. That is part of what it is to be human. We think that we are entitled to know things that people do not want to tell us, and we believe that what we do not know is being withheld from us for malign and deliberate reasons. At the same time, we want to feel that everything is on the record, everything is open to us and that there is no culture of secrecy. We would be really miserable if there were no culture of secrecy; it would leave us with nothing to feel paranoid about. We need to examine our own motives as citizens in thinking about how government information is conveyed.

It is clear from much of the evidence that we heard that there is still value in a system of regular, on-the-record press briefings and that these should be as open and as accessible as possible, and that, in the main, major policy announcements should be made to Parliament before they are shared with John Humphrys. I am glad to see that the Government’s response reinforces this view, albeit a little complacently, as others has pointed out. I hope that my noble friend will underline this again, when he comes to reply.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page