Memorandum by Mr William Horsley
Journalist and broadcaster, Chairman of the
Association of European Journalists (UK) since 2001 and former
BBC News correspondent (to 2007). My comments draw on some 25
years' experience as a BBC foreign affairs correspondent, including
17 years of reporting closely from and about Europe, from 1991-2007.
I worked for BBC TV and Radio as the BBC's Germany Correspondent
from 1991-97, and then from 1997-2007 as BBC European Affairs
correspondent working out of London, writing regularly for BBC
News Online and presenting the World TV and News 24 magazine programme
(NB The Association of European Journalists
is an independent, non-partisan group of professional journalists
and media practitioners concerned broadly with European affairs.
It holds regular members meetings in London with public figures
and promotes media freedom and standards. The AEJ has branches
in more than 20 European countries, and was this year granted
Observer status on media policy issues with the Council of Europe,
the main watchdog for civil and media rights across Europe. I
am also the AEJ's international Media Freedom Representative,
and edited and co-wrote the two Surveys of Media Freedom in Europe
published by the AEJ over the past year. They are available on
1. THIS SUBMISSION
I am submitting these comments in response to
your Call for Evidence, addressed to me by letter in July. It
is an individual submission, but I include a few brief additional
comments, with their permission, from two colleagues who have
taken part in AEJ events.
2. BARRIERS TO
OPENNESS: A CRITICAL
I applaud the principles and main reforms proposed
in the Phillis Report of 2004, but assess the implementation of
the recommendations as inadequate in key respects. The government
still tends to cling to a culture of secrecy, based on restricted
and carefully rationed media access to information about policies.
It is a self-defeating approach which also negates some good efforts
to implement Phillisfor example by using government websites,
e-mail shots and interactive services.
3. The "three-way breakdown of trust"
among politicians, media and the public which Sir Robert Phillis
and his team identified can not be said to have improved since
2004. On the contrary, a growing disconnect is apparent between
the government's major declarations of purpose, and its assessments
of life in Britain, and the realities and concerns in the mind
of the British public. Entrenched, old-fashioned practices and
attitudes of secrecy on the part of government ministers and officials
represent a structural barrier to the dialogue the government
says it wants. Importantly, the task of government communicators
has been made harder, and sometimes perhaps impossible, by an
obvious and much debated lack of political coherence in the government's
presentation of its strategic priorities and policies, on issues
ranging from taxation to energy policy. As a result the public
largely feels excluded, not consulted, and has repeatedly shown
in recent months that it feels baffled about the government's
intentions and policies.
4. Public trust in the media has also declined
further, from a rather low starting-point in 2004. The British
public often sees the mainstream media as part of the same problem,
of a privileged elite operating in a separate world, rubbing shoulders
with those in power. Government and media are suspected of colluding
in secret places and secret ways for their mutual advantage, despite
the fierce attacks often traded between government and media (notably
Tony Blair's "feral beasts" speech of 2007). A large
part of the public is dissatisfied with the way the national media
have reported and presented the changing picture of government
activity. The remedy must lie in real government moves to ensure
more openness and directness. One obvious step in that direction
would be more live Internet broadcasts and transcripts of ministerial
press conferences and other policy presentations.
5. The UK's mainstream media have themselves
committed serious breaches of professional ethics, including phone-in
scams, and they stand accused collectively of "dumbing-down"
the coverage of serious issues in the nation's life in the pursuit
of ratings, popularity and mindless glorifying of celebrity. Together,
these failures on the part of government and media have led to
popular disillusionment and alienation, which risks developing
into a real sense of disenfranchisement among significant parts
of the population.
6. How real is the government's commitment
to more openness? Its recent policy decisions seem to cast doubt
on it. The enactment of new anti-terrorism laws on pre-trial detention
have disturbed much of public opinion as well as the media, and
restrictions on court reporting of some security-related cases
have placed extra barriers in the way of public understanding
of matters of high public interest. Critics say the legislation
not only only removes age-old freedoms but also hampers the media's
freedom to inquire and report potential abuses of executive power.
Journalists including Shiv Malik have also faced new pressures,
under threats of prosecution, to reveal their confidential sources.
The Freedom of Information Act has proved to be a valuable tool
for countering Whitehall's culture of secrecy. But the government
has done its best to stop the Act from being used successfully
in crucial cases, such as the request for disclosure of the early
drafts of the intelligence dossier on Iraq's WMD capabilities.
7. The heart of the matter is that government
ministers and officials too often persist in treating information
about government policies and decisions as privileged information,
instead of public property. The recent attempts to de-politicise
the government's communications work does appear to have largely
succeeded. But the system of government communications has often
failed to deliver coherent messages in the face of contradictory
policy formulations, U-turns and administrative failings, including
the loss of sensitive data about sections of the population, among
numerous other unsettling issues for the public.
The Foreign Office has some great strengths
in terms of press relations. In particular, the quality of briefings
and policy presentations by senior officials compares well with
other UK departments (as some of your other commentators have
observed). Still, the intended messages of British diplomacy are
not getting through to the UK media or to the general public,
largely because the means of delivery are too narrow and old-fashioned.
9. I see particular difficulties in the
government's presentation of its policies on foreign affairs in
fast-changing times. In recent years the parameters of British
interests internationally have shifted dramatically, for example
in Iraq but also, I would argue, across the board. Yet the government
has failed to explain the changing political winds of the world
to the population at large. It sets the prevailing tone of public
debate, in which big issues like Iran's nuclear programme or Russia's
political and economic bullying of its western neighbours have
remained the preserve of very small foreign policy elite. The
roaring success of new initiatives such as the Intelligence Squared
debates in London, which allow the public to debate big international
issues with influential public figures directly, is evidence of
the hunger for ways of opening up the debate and de-mystifying
issues of foreign affairs.
10. One of the most serious failures of
government communications is thus that the public has not been
alerted to new threats to British security and interests such
as the re-emergence of Russia as an aggressive power, nor to the
sweeping change brought about by the UK's steady incorporation
into a continent-wide system of governance through the European
Union. One might surmise that the Foreign Office feels it has
its hands full with communicating and seeking public support for
controversial policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the emergency
of combatting terrorist threats. But the failure to flag up and
explain other drastic changes in the landscape has left the public
bemused, fearful and reluctant to believe the government's appeals
and explanations when crises erupt.
11. The point applies to issues as divergent
as Russia's illegal invasion and occupation of much of Georgia
and the need for the EU's Lisbon Treaty. In both cases the Foreign
Office appears caught on the back foot in terms of public opinion.
It now has an uphill struggle in the face of a suspicious public
to prove what is self-evident and accepted by every reputable
international bodythat Russia has acted in flagrant violation
of international norms and laws by its actions in Georgia and
the crisis represents a grave test for the whole international
community. As for the Lisbon Treaty, British diplomacy achieved
many of its goals in the conduct of negotiations, but in the febrile
climate of the UK the government made little effort to sell the
merits of the package, or to explain how it might be good for
12. Indeed British officials sometimes appear
to discourage discussion on that rather important point. As an
example, when I asked a very senior official in a public forum
to say how the UK would be approaching the formulation of a common
foreign policy with other European states under the new rules
foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty my question was dismissed without
an answer on the spurious grounds that it must be motivated by
"euro-scepticism". Answers must be given if the public
is to have any confidence.
13. THE NEED
The government has failed to make a cogent case
either to the national media or to the general public for its
approach towards the UK's part in the European Union. This represents
an extraordinary failure, considering that the progressive steps
towards political integration of the UK with its EU partners,
through a series of binding treaties, represents a very profound
change in the UK's actual system of government, affecting both
domestic and foreign affairs in far-reaching ways. The British
media are often blamed for hostile or inadequate coverage of Europe,
and the BBC acknowledged in a recent review that it was not telling
the story clearly enough. But I judge that the government's failure
to even try to explain the often complex workings of the EU is
the root cause of this disconnect.
14. In opinion polls British people describe
themselves as among the least informed as well as the most hostile
to the doings of the European Union.
15. Britain's independent room for manoevre
in foreign policy has become very obviously constrained by the
need to act in concert with its main European partners in areas
where key national interests are involved, including the Middle
East and Russia. Events in Iran, Iraq, Georgia and Russia have
highlighted that constraint, especially since other European states
have shown that they hold very different priorities and goals.
Britain's uncertain role within Europe appears to be undermining
the government's overall sense of purpose in foreign policy. This,
combined with popular dissent over some policy areas, has made
the presentation of foreign policy appear less convincing in the
eyes of the public.
16. The UK's relationship with Europe appears
to be the government's biggest blind spot. Supporters and opponents
of the EU integration process disagree fiercely about the merits
of setting up a more formal, legally-grounded and elaborate EU
structure of governmental power by means of a new treaty among
all EU member states. But both sides are broadly agreed that the
latest version, the Lisbon Treaty, (the successor to the failed
"EU Constitution") means that the UK and other national
governments would cede very significant powers over both home
and foreign policy-making to a collective EU decision-making system
through "shared sovereignty". Yet the government has
held fast to the argument that the treaty will not affect the
fundamental relationship between the UK government and the EU.
Michael Connarty, the Labour chair of the European Scrutiny Committee,
seemed to make a mockery of the government's stance by stating
that the EU's Lisbon Treaty would involve a "massive"
transfer of powers from Westminster to EU institutions. My own
knowledge of the process over many years tells me that Mr Connarty's
assessment is correct.
17. In my evidence below I draw special
attention to the government's perceived failure to be truthful
about the significance of the EU's Lisbon Treaty. The dominant
focus on domestic policy of this House of Lords Inquiry should
not, I submit, be at the expense of grasping the high risk of
an explosion of public disquiet or dissatisfaction over this issue.
The media barrage against the government policies on Europe, including
the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, is an omen of what may
follow. British officials and ministers would be well advised
to take in the lesson from Ireland, where an aggressive campaign
to blacken the name of all opponents of the Lisbon Treaty as "extremists"
before this year's referendum backfired spectacularly. The Irish
voted No by a large margin and in unexpectedly large numbers.
18. LEGACY OF
Although this Inquiry is looking into what changes
have occurred in the past four years it is important to establish
that the Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly has left
a toxic legacy in terms of the government's record for trustworthiness,
as well as trust in the BBC. It is enough to note that in opinion
polls the British public believed by a clear margin that the government
was more at fault than the BBC in the affair. The government's
own probity has come sharply into question again recently over
the decision on national security grounds to halt a Serious Fraud
Office investigation into BAe System's arms contracts with Saudi
Arabia, described as the biggest arms deal in the UK's history.
Without taking this point any further, I want to note that public
doubts about the well-aired allegations of corruption are bound
to colour the ongoing efforts to improve government communications
and re-build the three-way trust with the media and public.
19. MEDIA ACCESS
The promises set out in the Phillis Report about
open media access to press conferences and briefings have not
been fulfilled. That failure continues to damage the relations
between government and media and the public's right to know about
a range of policies and decisions. In earlier hearings to this
Inquiry senior government officials responsible for press relations
stated that press conferences and briefings should be open to
"everyone", adding that action should be taken to correct
the mistake if they were not. But in practice the daily on-the-record
briefing by the prime minister's spokesman inside the Commons
is limited to those journalists with a parliamentary pass, while
the one held inside the Treasury is also limited because of rules
governing access to the building. Similar rules limiting journalistic
access apply in other ministries, at Number Ten and at the Foreign
20. The restrictive policy needs to be changed,
both to avoid favouritism and to serve the much wider range of
media outlets now working to provide information and articles
to new outlets, new media and the Internet. If the government
accepts the Phillis recommendations, ministers should take responsibility
for ensuring that press officers allow open access to press conferences,
and wherever possible to background briefings as well. Press officers
often assume the authority to be gatekeepers for their seniors
and political masters. That discretion may sometimes be necessary
but it is often misused and should be curtailed or stopped.
21. The privileged circle of political correspondents
for leading media covering the Prime Minister naturally enjoy
special access to top government figures and sensitive information.
But this inner circle also displays some of the weaknesses of
any "closed shop" group, and there is a serious down
side to the creation of such an exclusive group: when foreign
leaders attend press conferences in London with the British prime
minister and the right to ask questions is (as usual) granted
to members of that tiny group, important international issues
often go unmentioned or unquestioned. There is no space to pursue
such points here, although I believe they are important and the
current arrangements sometimes act as a barrier to understandingand
therefore also to the government's own goals.
22. The system of employing a civil servant,
Mr Ellam, to speak on the record but not on camera is another
important failure to deliver on the pledges of Phillis in 2004.
Jon Devitt, who was political correspondent for BBC World TV and
BBC World Service radio until May this year comments as follows:
"By devising this system the government has constructed a
new bureaucratic skin to protect itself from difficult questions.
Mr Ellam, as a civil servant, only gives a few lines of official
comment which he often repeats in answer to every question. It
would obviously be better, as Phillis suggested, if these briefings
23. Jon Devitt observes, in tune with Nick
Robinson's observations to the Inquiry, that the best arrangement
is for the prime minister to have a powerful, authoritative figure
as his spokesman, such as Bernard Ingham for Mrs Thatcher or Alistair
Campbell for Tony Blair, because they can be properly interrogated
by journalists. I personally agree with that.
24. THE UK'S
In a rare display of media shyness, UK government
ministers have for some years refused to give press conferences
when attending the regular quarterly European Union summits, usually
held in Brussels. For some years they were the only national delegation
to act in that way. Tony Blair began the practice, instead, of
making short "doorstep"-style appearances at the VIP
entrance, where leading British media representatives would gather
by arrangement in a small group, excluding most other journalists
covering the summits. This custom seems to have begun in about
2001 as a way for the prime minister to avoid the risk of persistent
questioning by British political correspondents on awkward domestic
issues in a venue where the PM wanted to stick to current business,
or at least to European issues.
25. This practice is much resented by journalists
from other parts of Europe and it appears after some years to
be damaging to the image of Britain in indirect but perhaps important
ways. Another sign of the UK government's lack of proper concern
for its wider press responsibilities is the troublesome and long-drawn-out
system of handling the accreditation of foreign correspondents
who settle in London. I have been told by individual correspondents,
such as a national TV correspondent of a fellow-EU state, of his
annoyance at being humiliated by the unnecessarily curt and thoughtless
treatment of UK officials.
It goes without saying that British media workers
would regard such behaviour as quite unacceptable if meted out
to them in a foreign country. However, I welcome the commitment
of the Foreign Office to revive and refurbish the Foreign Press
Association as a worthy venue for a range of press events in London.
Government leaders and ministers need to take
active responsibility for effecting a major opening up of government
to achieve a more open provision of information to the media as
a whole. Press conferences should be made open to all bona fide
journalists, within the limits of space. They should be televised
on the Internet and made available as recordings as a matter of
course. The prime minister and cabinet themselves set the tone
for government communication and relations with the media.
27. Martyn Bond, a member of the AEJ and
deputy director of the London Press Club, adds this recommendation:
"The Phillis Report stresses the need for two-way traffic
between journalists and the government's press operations to overcome
the assumptions of "them and us". I would urge the adoption
of the Phillis recommendation of short-term contracts for professionals
who could work in government communications for a time as part
of a career which would continue outside the civil service. This
could involve an extensive scheme of internships at an early stage
of journalists' and civil servants' careers.
28. "Further, formal training courses
for civil servants and media employees should include comprehensive
information about the other, including emphasis on the importance
of mutual understanding, both for efficient government and for
the media to fulfill its role of accurately informing the public.
In particular, more training would be helpful to ensure journalists'
clear knowledge of relevant parts of the law."
29. Britain is fortunate in having robust
and diverse national media. The open questioning of those in power,
especially as carried out among others by respected national institutions
like the BBC and leading newspapers, is essential to Britain's
democratic life. But the country's laws governing the media have
grown unreasonably restrictive and should be reviewed in order
for a more open regime of government communications to work. A
cultural revolution in favour of openness is overdue.
15 September 2008