Gus O’Donnell gives Leveson his prescription for media mismanagement

by Atul Hatwal

A little tidbit from Gus O’Donnell’s written evidence at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday:

“When Alastair Campbell was appointed Director of Communications at Number 10, an Order in Council granted him the power to instruct civil servants. I thought that the power was an inappropriate one for a special adviser to have. I felt it was important to have a good civil servant as the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, without any outré Orders in Council. Civil servants are more able to achieve impartiality in briefing and avoid being drawn into political briefing. They have conducted all press briefings on behalf of the Government since that time – Gordon Brown stuck with that approach and so has his successor.”

O’Donnell clearly felt he was making a telling point. A political appointee directing civil servants was such a self-evidently bad thing that neither of Tony Blair’s successors had chosen to repeat this ill-starred experiment.

That’s one view.

Alternately, part of the reason that press coverage of each of Tony Blair’s successors has careened off the rails so violently is that there hasn’t been a single, partisan media chief in control of the government communications machine since Alastair Campbell.

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have each appointed media advisers, but with a limited reach across Whitehall.

The vast empire of hundreds of departmental press officers has been outside of Number 10’s purview. This army of media managers reports up through the civil service hierarchy, independent of the government’s political operation.

It’s an important distinction. Despite the frequent and genuine pleas from civil servants to their ministers that all they want to do is serve them effectively, ultimately, departmental press officers’ future career advancement is in the hands of the mandarins.

That means they are beholden to different masters.

In good times, this is rarely an issue. But when the pressure is on, the wheels of government turn slowly and, at worst, the gap between the interests of the democratically elected party in office and the senior civil service view of good government becomes a chasm.

When trouble erupts, attempts by Number 10’s political media team to orchestrate a clear line are always mediated from through senior civil service media ranks, down into the departmental press operations.

It’s not possible for a political appointee to direct frontline press officers. And so every extra link in the chain of command delays action and increases the risk of misunderstanding.

As the story breaks, information on the detail flows up through multiple departmental filters before a sanitised version is passed to the political high command.

Inevitably Number 10 starts behind the story and frequently stays off the pace over repeated news cycles.

That’s on a good day when the civil service operation is only reacting slowly. On a bad day, the mandarins might have a very different view of the best interests of the country.

One example. In the dying days of the Brown government, the call went out from Number 10 for examples of innovative policies that could be used to showcase government achievement.

It was February 2010 and the sands of time were nearly out for Labour. An election was coming and the civil service was nervous about the likely change of government. At the department for energy and climate change (DECC), Ed Miliband relayed Number 10’s directive to his civil servants.

He was disappointed with what he got back.

The civil servants were almost entirely detached and in open revolt. At the time, one press officer said to me, “It’s like Downfall in Downing street. We’re trying to manage this situation and get through this”. Manage this situation. Get through this. The implication was crystal clear.

This wasn’t a lone, rogue press officer. She was just reflecting the view from her bosses. And they were reflecting the view from theirs.

Whether it is the institutional inertia of layers of press office bureaucracy or an actively hostile agenda, the division of media command between Number 10 and the civil servants is often lethal for the electoral prospects of the politicians.

But for Gus O’Donnell, giving his views to Leveson, this was irrelevant. The evidence of disastrous headlines that befell Gordon Brown and shambolic media management from David Cameron’s team; all discounted.

What mattered to O’Donnell, above all else, was a return to the established civil service view of governance. No political control of civil service media operations, irrespective of the impact on effective government communication.

In a nutshell, all that is wrong with the attitude of the senior civil service.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut

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3 Responses to “Gus O’Donnell gives Leveson his prescription for media mismanagement”

  1. Jon Worth says:

    It’s Gus O’Donnell’s job to defend the civil service and its impartiality. We should not be remotely surprised that he does that.

    But conversely what do we *want* instead? Your conclusion – that the attitude of the civil service is wrong – is weak and simplified.

    Essentially the structures and staffing hierarchies are wrong, and the civil service code – in its current form – is not adapted for the modern world. Looking at those things would lead to a change in attitude from the civil service. Assuming change in attitude could happen on its own is to misunderstand the civil service.

    (I say this as a long standing Labour Party member and former civil servant)

  2. Marcus Roberts says:

    Excellent piece. Also important to fell this ‘Order in Council’ nonsense that Sir Robin Butler insisted upon. All it did was formalise a reality. Does anyone really think that Blair’s predecessors had staff who were unable to instruct civil servants? As Jonathan Powell notes in his excellent ‘The New Machiavelli’ was Ed Balls at the Treasury actually unable to order civil servants? Really?

  3. swatantra says:

    Its a bit much having non-ministers ordering civil servants about.
    Balls and Whelen shouldn’t have done so and should have been carpeted.

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