Life, love and loss on the frontline of government media relations
About the author
Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
With all the attention given to ‘political spin’, little is known about life on the media front line for the 700 or so civil service press officers working across Number 10 and government departments. The unflappable official who deals with media and political crises, even snap elections, with calm detachment, while ministers and their aides give way to panic, is a familiar popular stereotype rooted in the supposed contrast between the stability, permanence and neutrality of the civil service, and the passion, danger and excitement of political life.
Former BBC and local government PR practitioner Ruth Garland, a graduate from the CIPR diploma in Public Affairs and Political Communication (2011), went on to study for a PhD at the London School of Economics, interviewing former government press officers, policy journalists and special advisers about their working lives. A story emerges of a discreet internal battle being played out between the principles of impartiality and the determination on the part of politicians that their narratives should be conveyed with passion. Most surprising though was the emotional attachments that many press officers formed with the ministers with whom they worked so closely.
Jonathan Haslam, John Major’s last press secretary, explains the sense of loss at Number 10 after Blair’s landslide victory of 1997 as “a maelstrom of emotion…John and Norma Major were much loved and when you are fighting in a bunker it’s a very bonding experience.” Siobhan Kenny, then a press officer at Number 10, who later progressed under Labour to become Director of Communication at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, remembers how the outgoing Prime Minister “called a breakfast for everybody there and he gave just the most amazing heartfelt speech and I looked around the room and I saw that everybody was in tears and the detectives were in tears. And I thought, ‘oh Christ, this day’s going to be quite difficult to get through’. And then off they went”.
Just two hours later, she recalls, “in sweep Tony and Cherie on a tide of emotion and euphoria the like of which you can’t imagine; after 18 years those people have been waiting to get into power, and the sun’s shining and it all lifts the mood of everyone in Number 10.” Meanwhile, looking down on the scene from one of the upper rooms at Number 10 was Maureen the cleaner who “really loved the Majors and when Tony got round to shaking her hand Maureen was still visibly upset”.
Journalists too talked about their sense of loss at what had been a more intimate relationship with both civil servants and politicians before political news managers took control of the media agenda. Nick Timmins, who worked as a specialist correspondent on the Times, Independent and Financial Times between 1981 and 2012, paid a tribute to the strategic skills of the late Romola Christopherson, Director of Communication at the Department of Health between 1986 and 1999, who “was excellent at holding her minister’s hand for the media. She was just a perfect bridge between the two. She’d make judgments. I remember going wrong with some story. I’d got two thirds of it right but the third I hadn’t got right was probably quite damaging and she made a judgment (…) If Rom said to me ‘I wouldn’t write that if I were you’, I’d think very hard before writing it. She wouldn’t tell you why you shouldn’t write it. So that’s a relationship of trust.”
There were difficult times for government communicators after 1997, especially those at the top. During the first year of the Blair government, 25 heads and deputy heads of information were replaced – 50% of the total. By 2002, none of the heads was still in post. In 2010, the pattern appeared to repeat itself: by 2014, of the 20 directors in post in 2010, just two remained.
One Director of Communication with 20 years’ experience serving three governments (1991-2011) found immediately after the 2010 election that “the first thing they wanted to do was produce the austerity package and part of that of course included communications being affected, so you were dealing with lots of fearful and weeping colleagues”. A press officer at the time (1999-2011) describes how “I found myself crying in the toilet before having to go out and announce that we were scrapping something that I really believed was doing good”.
But there were major highs as well as lows, especially during times of media and political crisis. A press officer just starting at the Home Office at the time of 9/11 felt as if “we were in the eye of the storm…the politics is crazy but it feels so vital. You feel alive. There was a great team of people. My head of news had huge confidence in me, which was lovely”. Nadine Smith, who later performed senior roles at the Cabinet Office found it “absolutely fascinating as a relatively young person talking to on a very regular basis, the secretary of state, senior civil servants. It gets into your bloodstream. It’s quite addictive”.
Many noted ministers’ preoccupation with the daily news and regretted it. This former Director of Communication who left government in 2014 after 13 years had this advice for ministers who let fear of the media override their better judgement: “ministers are just terrified of the u-turn; of being pilloried by the media for making errors or for changing their mind, and they use lose sight of the folk out there who are not in the Westminster bubble who are not journalists who can see through some of the rubbish in the papers. There would be so much more to be gained by just fronting it out and saying ‘I’m going to level with you’. There are now more mechanisms than ever to direct public communications without the filter of a newspaper editorial or a Sun splash, that people are capable of handling a lot more information now to make their own judgments”.
In many ways, Theresa May has been less responsive to daily media chit-chat than David Cameron, often preferring to maintain a dignified silence until she has come to a considered decision. By going against her own denials to call an early election, she has also shown less fear of the dreaded u-turn. Timing is key in politics, and what you said yesterday may no longer be relevant today.
Ruth Garland was awarded her PhD in February 2017 for her thesis: Between media and politics: Can government press officers hold the line in the age of ‘political spin’? The case of the UK after 1997. She is now lecturing on the MA in Media and Public Relations at Brunel University. An article based on her research will appear in the journal Public Relations Inquiry later this year.