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Government Communications - Communications Committee Contents


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 Europe Direct.

  (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 www.aej-uk.org.)

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 ASSESSMENT

  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 Phillis—for 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.

8.  OMISSIONS AND WEAKNESSES IN PRESENTATION OF FOREIGN POLICY

  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 body—that 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 Britain.

  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 FOR MORE OPENNESS ON EUROPEAN POLICY

  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 THE PAST

  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 Office.

  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 understanding—and 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 were televised."

  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 IMAGE DAMAGED BY MEDIA POLICY AT SUMMITS

  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.

26.  CONCLUSIONS

  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



 
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