Alastair Campbell may be on his way out, but his influence in the furthest reaches of government appears undiminished. Last week, Ipswich Evening Star political editor Paul Geater was preparing for an innocuous fact-finding visit to the town’s new regional government headquarters. So, it seems, were the mandarins at the Government Office for the East of England.
A leaked memo shows they were “researching” Geater. That meant sifting through his previous published work in search of issues he would be likely to raise. It meant asking team leaders to suggest “controversial” subjects that he should be steered away from. It meant the preparation of a “defensive” briefing specifically in anticipation of his visit.
Now a professional approach from a PR department is one thing. But this bungled (sorry, “overenthusiastic”) attempt to vet a respected journalist is quite another.
These are civil servants, whose salaries are met by taxpayers. Their job is to help make government activities more open and accountable. Not to ensure that uncomfortable subjects are buried. Not to ensure that only journalists who can be trusted to ask the right questions are invited in. Is it really a good use of their time (and our money) to have them trawling back copies of the Evening Star for, what? Confirmation that Geater knows what he’s talking about? How much is this the tip of the iceberg? In the commercial world, Press Gazette is aware of “league tables” held by some PR companies in the computing sector, ranking specialist journalists in terms of their friendliness towards certain companies.
Government departments must not be allowed to head the same way.