The tonnes of bad news the Tories tried to bury yesterday

by Tom Watson

David Cameron’s press team didn’t just bury bad news yesterday, they built a mass grave and emptied a juggernaut of trash into it.

Back in January, Cameron proclaimed he would “end the culture of spin”. Even at the time, people sniggered. If he said it now, they’d fall about laughing.

Yesterday, the government released masses of information that in normal circumstances would have led the news today. Royal marriages are once in a generation after all.

The manner in which the announcements poured out yesterday was cynical, determined and ruthless. Will the government get away with it? Probably.

Our only response must be to deconstruct each announcement in detail and deal with it in slow time.

Take a look at what the government said:

Civil servant vanity photographer, Andy Parsons, was sacked and immediately rehired by Tory central office. He was joined by civil servant film maker Nicky Woodhouse. This is a humiliation for the prime minister. A degrading admission that he got it wrong – despite the advice of civil servants responsible for propriety and ethics in government.

In what appears to be a hurried statement, Ken Clarke announced to the House of Commons that he had reached an out of court settlement to pay the Guantamano Bay prisoners a secret amount of compensation running into millions of pounds. On a normal news cycle, journalists would be demanding to know how much and whether the prisoners received more than the 7/7 survivors were given in compensation.

The governor of the bank of England formally wrote to the government that it is a “concern that inflation is above target”. Which will be exacerbated next month when VAT is increased and petrol prices rise as a result. Ordinarily, white van men would be interviewed on petrol station forecourts up and down the land. Not yesterday.

And then Greater Manchester police announced that comprehensive spending review cuts would result in 1,387 uniformed police posts being axed, sending shockwaves around other police services in the country. Actually, this figure is so shocking that I suspect reaction to it will be reported for days and weeks to come in the north west. But it won’t be leading the front pages nationally. That would have been today.

Then there was the Redfern report – the one that tells the full scale of the nuclear industry’s old habit of secretly harvesting the body parts of nuclear workers without informing their loved ones. Imagine how on a normal news day this announcement would play out. Nuclear workers’ body parts systematically and secretly harvested for forty years? Even the Daily Mail might raise its eyebrows at that. On any other day.

When it comes to spin, Andy Coulson makes Alastair Campbell look like the eccentric old dame who volunteers to photocopy the parish magazine, such is his attention to the detail of news management. “We talk about our stories in great detail prior to publication”, Andy Coulson told the UK Press Gazette back in 2005. I can imagine his media grid meetings, stuffed with press officers and light on policy makers. They get great stories from the compliant Murdoch press but serious lobby journalists are picking up on the shallowness of their plans. It is for the opposition front bench rigorously to analyse each announcement.

We – her Imperial Majesty’s loyal opposition – must grin a bear days like yesterday and today. Our duty is to find loose strands of argument and pull at them. We already know from the child benefit debacle that this is a government that doesn’t want to be distracted by the detail. And that’s exactly how things begin to unravel for governments.

We know why detailed analysis of spun stories ultimately works for an opposition, because we suffered the consequences of it. There are countless examples where a tactical press announcement boiled over and left us in the stew.

When Tony Blair announced that all the people interned by the Japanese in the second world war would receive compensation, he was hailed as hero by the press the next day. There followed years of misery as lawyers, pressure groups and the public administration select committee argued with the MoD over the detail. What constituted citizenship? What level of proof was required to qualify for a payment, and so on. Lack of detail at the outset cost hundreds if not thousands of hours of misery for the poor civil servants who dealt with it.

Pulling at the strands of over-spun coalition announcement will tangle this administration up, leaving ministers over-burdened by the detritus of Number 10’s cynical spinners.

You probably won’t read as much as you should about Andy Parsons in today’s newspaper. But, make no mistake, we inflicted a defeat on the government yesterday. We did so because, after months of probing, we got to the facts, and David Cameron over-reached himself.

The genius of opposition is the devil of government: the detail. Yesterday’s lesson for our front bench is clear: read the small print.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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27 Responses to “The tonnes of bad news the Tories tried to bury yesterday”

  1. James says:

    Seems like yesterday was a good day to bury bad news.

    Wonder which party of government in 2001 they got the idea from…. 😉

  2. Pathetic. You missed the really important bad news. That came from the Department of Health which said that 61 schemes in the NHS (worth £900m) were taken out of public ownership and became privately owned businesses. Yup that’s right, the great car boot sale of the NHS, that we knew would happen.

    Why isn’t Labour shouting about this? Why aren’t you getting people on the street?

    The reason is clear. This is the third and final phase of a process started by New Labour. You started it. Heard Francis Maude on the radio this morning saying that ALL NHS hospitals will be sold off like this? Will you complain? Of course not, because it is just what you did to NHS Community Health services just pushed to the logical conclusion.

    Mr Watson, you have to decide whose side you are on. As any of your constituents if they want to see NHS services privatised (don’t say mutualise, because when you take something out of private ownership, it is privatisation). You’ll find that most do not want this. So whose side are you on? Are you with the majority of the public who want a publicly owned NHS, or are you on the side of the Tories who do not want the responsibility of NHS healthcare provision?

    The NHS is the one policy that unites the public and can bring down this government. Try and make the right decision Mr Watson.

  3. Dougald says:

    Good work, Tom. Thanks for this.

    I guess the question is, how would Labour do things differently next time? Is there any getting off the roundabout of spin? Or is it just that you’d hope to be spinning less dastardly things? 😉

  4. Jabba says:

    “When it comes to spin, Andy Coulson makes Alastair Campbell look like the eccentric old dame who volunteers to photocopy the parish magazine, such is his attention to the detail of news management. ”

    You’re having a frickin’ laugh aint ya Tom???? Given the murky s**t you’ve been up to your neck in with the last incumbent???

    Jesus Christ, crowing over the removal of a photographer from the Civil Service payroll… and you think this is a victory….

    You need to get out more Tom. Out of Westminster, preferably.

  5. Rabid Raccoon says:

    Re: andy parsons: nobody cares, Cameron did the right thing in the end and frankly I would rather have a PM who can critically evaluate his decisions and reverse the wrong ones than one so completely intransigent that he persists regardless of the prevailing public opinion

    RE: VAT and inflation etc. this is hardly the fault of the current administration

    Re: Redfern, given this goes back to the 1950’s it is hardly the fault of the current administration

    Re: Manchester police. I thought they were funded by council tax. Manchester is a labour area and so therefore this is the fault of the current local labour administration who presumably have failed to make efficiency savings in other areas and have had to pass the cuts to the police

    So all in all none of this is really particularly significant ‘bad news’ it is just the kind of irritating stuff that politicians like to throw around the place in an attempt to score points, but which completely fails to impress the general public.

    Ultimately these issues all go beyond party political boundaries and if Labour want to get into power again perhaps they should stop this silly point scoring and try to be part of the solution

  6. David Bouvier says:

    Oh come on…

    The engagement annoucement seems to have been under wraps until very shortly before hand.

    The Clarke statement was being trailed on the Today programme early in the morning, before the announcement and anyway was the Coalition cleaning up the mess left by Labour’s apparent collaboration with torture. Bad news for who exactly?

    Cameron sorting out the photographer mess that spins badly but has little real substance (what’s the betting there is no saving from the higher rates that freelancers will charge). And given the wall of publically funded propaganda Labour tried to push out just before the election, again, I am not impressed.

    The BoE letter is unexpected and a regular occurence. And whose economic incontinence let inflation out of the bottle again? Not Osborne was it.

    And even if they did exploit the news, at least they weren’t doing so on a day of international crisis and potential domestic security threat when perhaps politicians should have been thinking about the national interest.

    In short, a rather feeble attempt a moral equivalence between the sleazy rejected Labour regime and the current coalition. No comparison, mate.

  7. MIke Jecks says:

    I have to admit, I think this is contemptible. Labour deliberately shoved out “juggernauts” of bad news on – let’s remember . . . oh yes, the day that several thousand Americans were slaughtered in the worst terrorist attack ever on US soil.

    The Conservatives announced and prepared the public for a series of bits of bad news – much of it caused by YOUR administration – and then the Prince announced his engagement.

    No, matey. Not in the same league as Campbell at all.

  8. Outlier says:

    It appears the Tories have simply continued where Labour left off. Who can forget Byers’ spin doctor Jo Moore and her disgusting and blatant opportunism in the wake of 9/11?

  9. Slipper says:

    They did a piss-poor job of burying it or don’t you couny radio 4 which carried all these stories many several times.I know you are a politician but that doesn’t make it compulsory not to write the truth.

  10. Barry McCanna says:

    If all this bad news was buried, how come I knew about it before I read your article? For the record, I live in rural Normandy, not exactly a hotbed of political gossip!

  11. purpleline says:

    Seems strange that most of the things you say they hid had happened under `13 years of Labour rule. Kind of looks like an own goal.

    Just remind us of the numbers Blair and Brown employed on the Tax payer?

    Labour is so bankrupt you see conspiracies everywhere because while in government Labour governed by conspiracy.

    The big news yesterday was that William never succumbed to the Brown regime pressure to get wed. Brown was beside himself with rage yesterday. A symptom of a schizophrenic personality.

  12. AndyN says:

    Strangely, I have heard, read or watched every one of the stories referred to here in various news outlets over the last 24 hours. If the ‘master spinner’ Coulson intended to bury them, then he made a lousy job of it.

    There seems to be an almost inexhaustible supply of hot air emanating from Tom Watson – if only we could power white vans with it.

  13. Jane says:

    Wrong, wrong and wrong again. I knew everything you mentioned – had read it on the Web on Monday. Further David Cameron stated yesterday that he was told during a Cabinet Meeting about the Royal engagement. I get the feeling that you are enjoying being HM Offical Opposition? I think my favourite MP and now ex blogger said this too in a blog. A bit sad trying to make headlines when all the facts presented are clearly wrong.

  14. Tom says:

    Hey – Tory trolls and a fisk on Iain Dale. The Downing Street spin machine is angry. Good to know the column hit the mark.

  15. JamieG says:

    No questions at all about the Irish bail out though?

    There is no Labour party. There is no Conservative party. There is no Liberal party.

    There is only the Bank party.

  16. Gallagher, Manchester says:

    The cuts at Greater Manchester Police were announced on Monday morning, not yesterday.

  17. FX Man says:

    I heard eveone of these items on the news yesterday – without paying particular attention. If that’s “burying” then the Coalition won’t make great undertakers.

  18. Neil says:

    If labour would have stayed in power we would not
    Be far off a communist state eventually!
    The few paying for the many never enough
    To go round. Coalition can’t do any worse
    Than the last lot!

  19. Stephen says:

    Given how useless the Miliband is, he wouldn’t have noticed this news if it had been tattooed to the back of his hand by Andy Coulson! Downing street did a lousy job of burying this news so the real scandal is why are they doing such a bad job.

    I’d like to hear what Labour would do better before I ever consider voting for you lot next time around.

  20. Dr Pangloss says:

    Is this really the best you can do?

    Apart from the factual inaccuracies, you appear to be judging the coalition by your own standards. The electorate didn’t sack Labour because it didn’t do a good enough job of smearing the opposition.

    There isn’t enough room to list the reasons why the party is not fit to govern, but until you fess up to your incompetence and stop lying you will remain irrelevant.

  21. AnneJGP says:

    @Tom, your comment reads as though you are Mr Watson.

    I come to Labour-Uncut because I want to see Labour become a party I feel able to vote for. When I comment, it’s because I hope my outsider’s opinion might be of some small use to that end.

    I saw nothing in the OP worth commenting on, (apart from the word “Imperial”). On Tom’s comment, I do want to offer a thought.

    It’s simply this. When we dismiss all differing viewpoints as unworthy of a hearing, we’re stuck in that blind alley with no hope of progress.

    (Since I’m posting anyway, was the acquisition of another empire an unpublicised part of the Labour government’s wars?)

  22. Alex says:

    Do you get paid to write this tripe or do you do it off your own bat?

    Most of those announcements were on the breakfast news yesterday and the government had no control over when they were coming out. So you think Cameron got on the blower to Buck House at 9.30 and asked them to whip up a wedding?

    Do us all a favour. You don’t have the brain cells to be an MP and your salary is 65 grand up the swanne for the tax payer, so why don’t take your witless malevolence and take a hike back where you came from and let someone else do a proper job in parliament?

  23. Captain Quark says:

    And you wonder why you lost the election. An allegedly intelligent, thinking, considered individual like you, fit (allegedly) to hold the highest office of responsibility as an MP, and the best you can do is name-calling.

    Look at what Blair, Campbell, Brown, Mandleson and Whelan did.

    Look at the 2001 origin of the phrase “bury bad news”, and the cynical manipultion of Jo Moore, Stephen Byers and their ilk.

    Then healer, heal thyself.

    Dismiss me as a “Tory Troll” if you please. I am, always have been, and always will be, a working class man. I have not betrayed my working class roots and can still look my (working class and now elderly) parents in the eye. Can you?

  24. vern says:

    And you get paid to do this Tom! Your own web site has the same meaningless drivel on it. Those hard working people of Sandwell you represent deserve far better than this “invention” and your asking for wine and art lists from the incumbent government>

  25. Anne – that is Tom Watson. Hover the mouse over his name and it brings up his website. I assume he just didn’t bother giving his surname.

    Incidentally, the swarm of Tories protesting that they did too hear about these things might need to read again, but more carefully. The argument wasn’t so much that they were obscured as that they received much less analysis than they would have done if they’d come out individually on a day without a royal engagement topping the news, especially the tabloid frontpages – because Radio 4 does not decide the political debate.

    Also, anybody who thinks 2001 was the first time a decision was made to bury bad news is living in fantasy land. It’s a habit as old as politics itself, practiced by pretty much every institutional machinery that’s halfway functional and strategically-minded. The difference with Jo Moore is that they got caught. I believe the point of this argument is that we should not let these issues fade away just because they didn’t dominate the news today.

  26. Aaron D Highside says:

    Watson, Woolas, Ainsworth, Prescott and so many other Labour MPs. Thick.

  27. Jonny says:

    A lot of negative comments here, I bet this website is a hunting ground for tory toff’s who have nothing better to do than sit there on google, scoping out pro-labour websites that they can leave their stuffy, i-am-vastly-more-intelligent-than-thou comments. Serioussly, if you don’t back labour why bother visiting a website is CLEARLY titled LABOUr-uncut?

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