Government communications should serve the public

31 March 2021 | Will Moy

Today's news agenda is being driven by government led discussion of a carefully selected preview of a 258 page report and then 24 unknown recommendations.

By the time the actual report was released, media lines had been taken, and much of what the public will take away from it will be based on this selective summary.

The topic of race in Britain is too important and sensitive to treat in this way.

These tactics are enough to make a cynic of anyone—and sadly and damagingly almost everyone is a cynic already when it comes to what politicians say.

Boris Johnson and many in the current administration have good reason to resent these tactics because they actually faced them during the EU referendum.

George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, commissioned a report from the Treasury about the economic impacts of leaving the EU. It was selectively briefed to the press one Sunday the month before the EU poll.

George Osborne, a leader of the Remain campaign, unveiled a billboard the following morning with a misleading slogan derived from this report.

Only then was the report itself published for independent scrutiny.

This was not civil servants being public servants. It was civil servants colluding with a political campaign by acting as PRs to the government of the day.

In both cases we, the public, paid for this work. In both cases, those in power used that work selectively to manipulate us and not to inform us.

And in both cases many journalists chose to go along with it. What they would easily recognise as a crude propaganda technique elsewhere have been reported in places as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

This shouldn’t be normal. A press corps that can mount such fierce scrutiny elsewhere does their readers a disservice in playing to the government’s tune.

Both debates were and are important to the future of the country and we all deserved better both times.

Will we accept these tactics again when the inquiry into how the coronavirus pandemic was handled is released? A favourable summary given press coverage while some convenient time later the rest of the report comes out?

We don't accept this in other areas. Official statistics cannot be quoted in public by ministers or anyone else until they have been independently published by the statisticians, with all their working and caveats. Commercial pollsters have rules that when a poll is used in public they will publish all the details. They do this because they want their name to mean something and their claims to be trusted.

Bad information ruins lives. It damages people's health, it promotes hate, and it hurts democracy. Government has the most powerful platform to distract, sow doubt, and spread misleading claims. Today we've seen again that whatever accountability mechanisms exist aren't working.

The Government Communications Service, part of the civil service, should serve all of us. At its best it does and the lifesaving importance of good public information during the pandemic proves how vital it is that public trust is not squandered by tactics like these.

Much of government communications used to be highly visible and easier to scrutinise. Aside from the private lobby briefings to journalists, what government put out could only ultimately reach us after independent scrutiny from the media, or in highly visible advertising campaigns.

Now it's much easier for governments and others to target messages, land headlines before publication, and bypass scrutiny.

Opting for “people's question times” of carefully-picked softballs broadcast on social media have all the performance of public accountability with none of the risks. Targeted advertising and PR campaigns may not attract wider attention but still need scrutiny to ensure that government's platform is not abused. There are many temptations in the toolkits of politically-motivated communications teams, and little outside scrutiny to balance that.

MPs must step in to earn the trust they seek from their constituents. It's time for a parliamentary inquiry into the oversight of government communications to protect the good they do and the vital importance of good official information. The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is one of the possible routes to make that happen.

Today's opposition is tomorrow's government so who better than a cross-party group of MPs to agree a way to stop this harmful trend?

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.