Whitehall info service's duty to serve local press

The government communication service must consider the needs of all the regional press – those with and without London-based lobby correspondents – says the Newspaper Society.

In its submission to the Phillis Inquiry into spin, the society says regional newspapers need a clear, consistent, reliable and responsive government information service.

It claims: “Response to regional press inquiries currently varies dramatically across different government departments. Direct access to officials or ministers is often difficult.

“The availability of up-to-date, internet-based background information is of particular importance for non-lobby journalists, and would reduce the time spent by government press officers handling basic enquiries.”

The society also claims more thought should be given to the relevant local angle on government announcements and says there is a concern that the regional lobby has become marginalised.

It says there has been a marked decline in the number of regional lobby briefings by government departments and “the apparent tailoring of briefings and press conferences to the needs of the broadcast media and national newspapers”.

The NS also claims: “If the Government is planning to launch a campaign or wants to communicate a specific message building on the unique, trusted relationship between the regional press and its readers, the correct communication method would be an advertising campaign in regional newspapers and not a PR campaign.”

Former BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones believes the review of government communications could be a “Trojan Horse” designed to privatise work being done by more than 1,000 civil servant information officers. In his submission to the review body on behalf of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Jones said: “We believe that the review group has been given a chance to find ways to honour the repeated assurances by the Prime Minister that the Labour Government has turned its back on spin. “This should be seen as an opportunity to devise new guidelines to restore trust between briefers and journalists. It should not become a backdoor route to hiving off work which should be performed by impartial civil servants.”

By Jon Slattery

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