Regions 'ready and waiting' for own Whitehall briefings

The Government has extended an olive branch to the regional media by promising more briefings outside London.

The long-awaited report from the inquiry into media-government relations, headed by Bob Phillis, right, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, backed the long-running complaint from regional journalists for the Government to pay more attention to their needs.

While ministers have yet to fully respond, Cabinet Office minister Douglas Alexander immediately promised “greater use of regional briefings and electronic communications”.

Welcoming the commitment, Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “Regional media outlets are ready and waiting for tailored briefings which are relevant to their areas.

“Given the technology there is now, it ought to be a simple matter to tailor the flow of information more specifically for the regions where government policies have more impact.”

The Phillis committee, whose members included John Hipwood, London editor, Express & Star, Wolverhampton; Charles Reiss, political editor, Evening Standard; and Nicholas Timmins, public policy editor, Financial Times, concluded: “Comprehensive communication on a regional and local basis requires a new approach. It needs to be as much a partner and senior player in the regions as in Whitehall.

“Each region should and could do much more than regurgitate press releases from Whitehall.”

The committee said the two benefits from the new approach would be to harness “the greater trust often placed in local media” and to engage the “audiences who are most interested in how government policy affects them directly”.

Phillis also called for the Government Information Service to be replaced by a professional communications system – controlled from Whitehall with a permanent secretary at its head, and for the twice-daily briefings for lobby journalists to be replaced by televised briefings.

Alexander immediately offered talks with the lobby to discuss government plans for more ministers to give lobby briefings, which should be “open and televised”.

But the move is likely to be opposed by some print journalists. Paul Linford, political editor of The Journal, Newcastle, and lobby secretary, said the committee’s conclusion that the then lobby chairman Jon Smith was the only person to back the status quo was “seriously misleading”.

But lobby chairman George PascoeWatson, deputy political editor of The Sun, gave a more positive response. “I welcome the chance to discuss with the Government how this historic challenge can benefit the press and broadcasters in our endeavours to hold ministers to account.”

Phillis claimed: “The lobby system is no longer working for either the Government or the media.”

 

‘HARM TEST’ RECEIVES BRUSH OFF FROM DOWNING STREET

Downing Street has cold shouldered a plea for the Freedom of Information Act to be given teeth.

The Phillis Report urged ministers to abandon the use of their veto blocking publication of information, and to abolish exemptions which ban any release of information in areas such as national security. Instead, it said, information should be subject to a “harm test”, which would make it easier for documents to become public in sensitive areas.

But No 10 indicated it would not carry out any review until after it has had the chance to see how the act, which comes into force next January, operates.

Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel said: “So long as this corrosive veto exists, ministers won’t take the act seriously – they know they can overrule the information commissioner and cling to their secrets.”

 

By David Rose

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