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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Spin doctors unlimited

Just as Rhodri Morgan's Government appoints a new spin doctor in chief, it emerges the appointee is part of a growing trend in Britain. This morning's Telegraph reveals that Government spending on spin has trebled under Labour and taxpayers are now supporting an army of more than 3,200 press officers:

A total of 1,815 press officers and other public relations staff works in Whitehall departments. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has three press officers, despite no longer having a department.

A further 1,444 are employed by a bewildering array of more than 200 quangos and agencies that are paid for out of the public purse, bringing the total number of press officers to 3,259.

When Labour came to power in 1997, just over 300 fully-fledged press officers were working in Whitehall, although that figure excluded a small number of other public relations staff.

The amount being spent on Government advertising, marketing and public relations has risen three-fold since Mr Blair entered No 10.

The Central Office of Information's PR, advertising and marketing budget has soared from £111 million in 1997 to £322 million last year. Much of the money has been spent on advertising flagship policies, including tax credits and extra help for pensioners.

Some might say that without all these press officers newspapers like the Telegraph would have nothing to write about. The Government response however is more illuminating:

The Central Office of Information defended the increased spending, saying that Labour was "a radical and reforming Government" and that it had a duty to explain its policies, decisions and actions and to inform members of the public about their rights and liabilities.

Yeah, right!

The Cabinet Office minister interviewed on World at One today was decidedly shifty on this matter.
Since 1997, we’ve had the advent of 24 hour news, BBC Parliament, political website, etc. The Government has never before been scrutinised as much as this government is being scrutinised, fairly or unfairly as the case may be. In the eyes of the Western (Daily) Mail in particular, the government can do no right.

Although the Cabinet Office is answerable for the COI in Parliament – it remains at arms length from government, and is strictly forbidden to partake in party political communication activities. As an example, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson (as a civil servant) refuses to answer questions on “party matters”. If people detest the idea of politicising the COI, then political advisers are going to be a necessary part of government, being that they are the only people allowed to give advice on, and communicate party policy.

The government certainly does have a “duty to explain its policies, decisions and actions and to inform members of the public about their rights and liabilities,” because some journalists, one welsh journalist being a notable example, seem to have great difficulty in reporting in a fair, balanced and impartial way. If some journalists could learn how to report, rather than expressing their own opinion, then perhaps the government could think about cutting the number of press officers.

3,200 press officers divided between all government departments (presumably that would include Devolved institutions, including legislatures), executive agencies and QUANGO’s, works out at a very small number per department, so I think the total number needs to be put into context.
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