Journalists tell Brown: scrap the spin and leave FoI alone

David Seymour
Former Mirror Group political editor and now a leader writer for the Daily Mail

Gordon Brown’s had an amazingly good first few days [of being Prime Minister in waiting], and I think what he’s saying is exactly right. Less spin, giving more power back to Parliament – all the things that the press have been demanding.

But the absolutely key thing that he needs to do is stop the watering down of the Freedom of Information Act, and in particular to make it quite clear that he is opposed to the idea that MPs will be exempt from the FoI Act.

If you read what’s been written about Brown’s time as Chancellor, he is actually held in extremely high regard. He needs to make a break with the terrible spinning that was associated with Campbell, and which Brown was himself a victim of.

Glen Oglaza
Political correspondent, Sky News

If the words most closely associated with Gordon Brown in the public mind are ‘dour’and ‘dull”, he’ll need to change not only his appearance (take a look at the new suits and ties, and the gleaming new smile) but also his dealings with the press. The Treasury-bunker mentality has got to go. Keeping the press at arm’s length is no longer an option.

Unlike a Chancellor, who can stick to his own brief and do a McCafferty whenever there’s a subject he doesn’t fancy, a Prime Minister has to respond to every eventuality. In this world of 24-hour news, reaction has to be fast and decisive. If he is not there, his political enemies will gleefully fill the void.

In fact, Brown did rather well in India during the Big Brother controversy. Good practice for a future PM.

He should stop denying his Scottishness and celebrate it instead. Let’s hear about some of the things Gordon gets up to at home (such as his support for Raith Rovers and schemes like ‘midnight football”, for example). And please, no more Arctic Monkeys.

Monthly press conferences, introduced by Tony Blair, will be a challenge, but Brown is looking more at ease than he has done for years. If he can develop a lighter touch to balance his heavyweight intellect, he may even come to enjoy them. Besides, how would it look if he scrapped them?

One final thought: keep those exclusives coming to Sky News!

John Kampfner
Editor, New Statesman

There was something poignant about Michael Howard’s recent Newsnight assault on Alastair Campbell. Blair’s chief spinmeister regarded attack as the only form of defence. His approach was misconstrued as arrogance. It was the opposite: it was the product of an innate under-confidence in New Labour, an absurd view of the press as an untamed animal.

Campbell quit years ago, but the reputation was established. One of Brown’s top priorities must be to overhaul the media operation. 

The urge will still be strong to try to ‘control’the news agenda, but it should be resisted. Instead, a more subtle approach should be adopted, talking to journalists candidly, trying to ‘guide’them in the Government’s direction, but not taking umbrage when stories go against it.

Brown should take heed of an old story about John Major. The then-prime minister, in the days before 24-hour news and the internet, would sometimes spend Saturday afternoons in Huntingdon watching the headlines on Ceefax and lamenting his fate.

Alastair Brett
Legal manager of The Times and secretary of the Fleet Street Lawyers group

Most importantly, Brown should scrap the new FoI regulations, which will cut off the media at the knees and prevent us discovering what central Government and big public authorities are up to. That’s top of the wish list.

He should read the riot act to the Information Commissioner and tell him to stop trying to be a policeman – trying to put journalists in prison for dealing in personal information.

Brown should scrap any primary legislation which would increase the penalties under Section Five of the Data Protection Act to two years in prison.

This Government is on record as saying that prison should only be used for people who are a real threat to the community. There is already the serious deterrent sentence that you can face an unlimited fine for breaching the Data Protection Act, but it is a long way short of [dealing with] people who are beating up old ladies and really should be in prison.

‘I’d also ask him to look at the Coroner’s Courts bill, which is currently on the stocks. It’s going to lead to ridiculous decisions being made by coroners that will lead to inquests being held in secret.”

John Hipwood
Political editor, Wolverhampton Express & Star and Shropshire Star

For want of a better phrase, things can only get better with the way the Government deals with the regional press.

I was chairman of the Parliamentary Lobby when Alastair Campbell started changing things in 1997 and, for the record, Alastair did try to help the regionals.

Since then, the flow of information from Downing Street, access to Tony Blair and other ministers has – with a few honourable exceptions – deteriorated.

Brown says he wants more open government. Well he now has an excellent opportunity to improve relations with the media and to put the release of information on a sounder, more straightforward footing.

But I can’t say that it’s started very well. Attempts by regional lobby correspondents at Westminster to find out where he was going on his journey around the land last week were met with a stony silence.

Trevor Kavanagh
Sun associate editor

Transparency and accountability. That means making all government statistics and handouts from the Office of National Statistics absolutely independent, so that we know where this Government stands. That would go some way to helping Brown lose his reputation as a ‘stealther”.

Even the Bank of England is not fully independent because the Prime Minister decides the members of the monetary committee.

If Michael Ellam is taking over as Downing Street spokesman, I think his reputation is very good – he’s straight and, from my experience, he will be a good press man. The most important thing for Brown is to shed his reputation for giving less than the full story.

Bob Satchwell
Society of Editors

The Government should stop blaming the messenger. The media only reflects the way politics has gone – if people try to spin and tell lies, that’s going to be reflected in the reporting.

Brown could also deliver on his promises to encourage greater openness by ensuring that there’s a real change in the culture of Government from the top downwards, and setting an example to everyone.

Far from watering down the FoI Act, as is still proposed, he should strengthen it to include the purpose clause that it never had. That would ensure that public authorities reveal information unless there is an extremely good and serious reason for not being open.

He should also remind everyone involved in the courts that the public have rights, as well as individuals. The basic right to know should normally take precedence over an individual’s right to privacy.

If Brown could do all these things, I think he would find that the media and the public would be less cynical about politics and politicians.

David Rose
Parliament correspondent since 1968

New Prime Ministers stamp their individual styles on Government within days of taking office, and Brown should seize the opportunity to signal that he wants to work with the media.

As a start, he should review relations with the Parliamentary Lobby to explore how relations can be improved.

Since Alastair Campbell put daily briefings on the record they have served little value other than providing on-the-record statements for journalists, especially broadcasters, to update running news stories.

Downing Street will still need to make statements on the record, but arrangements ought to be devised to ensure more information is provided.

It is also ludicrous, and time-wasting, for Westminster-based Lobby correspondents and Downing Street press officers to trek every morning to the Foreign Press Association in Carlton House Terrace, when more convenient accommodation exists in Downing Street and Parliament.

Regional newspapers want to know how government announcements impact on their areas and to be able to publish details the same day as announcements are made. While some Whitehall departments, and some enlightened press officers, understand their early deadlines, others should be encouraged to emulate best practice.

But Brown would win plaudits from editors by acting swiftly to bin proposals to curb the FoI Act, and to overrule MPs who want to exempt Parliament. It will not help him make a break with the era of spin under Blair if Parliament passes a law that will fuel suspicions it has something to hide.

The Newspaper Society

Brown should extend open government, open justice and the role of the press as the public’s watchdog. He should drop government proposals that would undermine the FoI Act, restrict court reporting, imprison journalists for data protection offences and penalise the publication of memoirs.

[He should look to] stop the erosion of freedom of expression; halt the extension of the criminal law and accompanying state powers that are used against the media’s investigation, reporting and publication; identify potential problems and constructively consult the media; and ensure the forthcoming consultation on online defamation and other media law matters produces proposals to protect and promote publication, online and offline.

He should also maintain the use of the local and regional press for government advertising, so that the Government benefits from the effectiveness of the titles’ close and trusted relationship with their communities. Finally, zero-rate VAT for the printed word in EU VAT negotiations should be maintained.

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