'Burying bad news' lives on: coalition government tries to slip out 'unhelpful' stories 'without any fanfare' PDF Print E-mail
Nicholas Jones, 9 January 2013

Among the seventy or so broken pledges which were to be slipped out 'without any fanfare' on a Whitehall website was the coalition government’s unfulfilled pledge to reduce the number of politically-appointed special advisers.

The revelation that David Cameron’s closest advisers were in precisely the same mind-set as the spin doctors who worked for Tony Blair a decade earlier was a powerful reminder of a continuing obsession with media manipulation.

A Downing Street discussion paper giving advice on how to avoid the publication of 'unhelpful stories' and 'unfavourable copy' mirrored Jo Moore’s infamous edict after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre that 'it’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury'.

Clearly the presentation of the coalition’s mid-term review had been a cause of considerable anxiety within the Prime Minister’s office and the restricted advice notice says that while it was possible to explain why some promises had not been proceeded with, this did not apply to 'some of the abandoned pledges e.g. numbers of special advisers'.

What is perhaps so ironic about this classic illustration of the spin doctors’ compulsion to want to 'bury bad news' is that the adviser responsible for publicising the gaffe should, like David Cameron, have been one of the notorious 'Patten’s Pups' from the Conservative Party’s ultimately victorious campaign in the 1992 general election.

Patrick Rock, the senior adviser who was photographed for the Daily Telegraph – holding open at the page the restricted document on the mid-term review – was a special adviser to Chris Patten, Conservative Party chairman at the time of the 1992 campaign.

Cameron, at the age of twenty five, was then the head of the political unit at Conservative Central Office and his campaign exploits with Rock included ill-fated attempts trying to fend off media attacks during the furore surrounding an ill-judged Tory election broadcast which triggered what became known as the 'war of Jennifer’s ear'.

Rock and Cameron were among the advisers who literally had to flee the scene when a misguided news conference descended into chaos. The Tory brat pack attracted considerable attention; David Seymour, a columnist for the now defunct Today, mocked Cameron and his chums and derided the then Prime Minister John Major for having put his faith in 'clammy hands of Patten’s puppies'.

Thirty years later history was repeating itself as enthusiastic advisers, perhaps little older than Cameron was in 1992, pondered on the problems surrounding the publication of the mid-term review, The Coalition: Together In The National Interest.  

No doubt Rock would have been mortified to have realised that his gaffe in leaving the text of the discussion document so clearly visible to a photographer in Downing Street had exposed Cameron to ridicule at Prime Minister’s questions.

But the undisclosed author of the document should surely have realised Jo Moore’s mistake in September 2001 in ever having committed to print the kind of script line which would have earned its place in the television satire The Thick Of It.

Ms Moore, formerly Labour Party chief press officer, was special adviser to the then Transport Secretary Stephen Byers and sent her email – on how to take advantage of the blanket news coverage for 9/11 – to the department’s head of communications: 'Alun, it’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses? Jo.'

The very same thought process has clearly lived on in Downing Street circa 2013 as the spin doctors struggled to work out how best to publish the rather embarrassing annex to the mid-term review:

I think this danger can be avoided by simply publishing the document without any fanfare on the government’s website...We might be accused on slipping out the difficult points...a couple days after we got more favourable [coverage].
The failure to honour the Conservatives’ pre-election pledge to cut the cost of political spin – by reducing the number of special advisers – was perhaps only to be expected when Nick Clegg and other the Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers insisted they needed a full quota of politically-appointed aides.

By March 2011 the annual bill for special advisers – average salary £68,000 – had risen to £4.5 million but the coalition was still insisting that the total number on the payroll was less than the eighty-five employed by the Blair government.

However, more advisers were appointed in 2012, equalling Labour’s tally, which explains the cryptic line in the Downing Street discussion document about 'abandoned pledges e.g. numbers of special advisers'... and turmoil in Downing Street over how best to manipulate the presentation of the mid-term review.