Following on Mick, it’s quite a good idea to appoint a poacher as gamekeeper. He knows where the traps are laid in advance. To Jeff Peel I don’t see that the important question is for the BBC or the Nolan show, which is a Marmite experience. It lies with the Executive. Jim Allister put his finger on it in his own way as Mark Devenport bravely reported:
“How ironic that the latest appointee is the very person who hitherto would have railed against and exposed the contrived process by which he was appointed.”
To start with as far as I’m aware, the Executive policy was to appoint government press officers who were to report the objective doings of the Executive in the fairly anodyne way we can still read in the Executive website. I confess I don’t understand why so many are needed but that’s an aside. But none of them was a spin doctor as we know it.
As I recall, the BBC political editor of the day Stephen Grimason was appointed to head up the operation in 2001.He has just retired as the Executive’s director of Communications David Gordon has been appointed as Executive Press Secretary to
reflect the Executive’s shared commitment to communicate effectively and move forward together… and tell ( a good story) of a united Executive team making good on its promises to the electorate. Ministers are absolutely determined to work collectively to deliver Government that makes a positive difference to people’s lives. This is what a Fresh Start looks like.”
This reads like a more politically active briefing job on the front line with added responsibility for putting forward effective speakers to the media on behalf of the Executive ( and keeping some off the air perhaps). To succeed he will need the united backing of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness over the heads of individual ministers. That will be worth watching.
I see no advert yet for a new Director of Communications whose job ordinarily would be to co-ordinate the output of the whole Executive.
With the best will in the world it was hard to find any trace of Stephen’s great political acumen in the early output. This was not only because of the need for impartial reporting but because the Executive was either in disagreement, deadlock or suspension. But it was always going to be tough call for a multiparty coalition without clear collective responsibility.
At Westminster there are three categories of briefing. One is civil service style impartial briefing in the departments. Two, every PM runs it slightly differently but this is reinforced and co-ordinated in No 10 whose daily spokesman is the government press secretary. This was well performed by Tom Kelly, another former BBC NI political editor for much of Tony Blair’s premiership. His briefings of course supported government policy. They were pretty straightforward and didn’t really go deep into party manoeuvring.
Tom took over the main daily briefings of the Westminster lobby when the briefings grew too hot for Alastair Campbell to sustain them. . Specifically Labour party briefings were given by David Hill, paid for by the party. Campbell remained the off the record strategist as director of communications which is still the top post – the arch spin doctor if you like. It was wise of Campbell to withdraw from daily meetings. They were becoming increasingly acrimonious and he was indeed “becoming too much of the story”.“ He resigned just before the Hutton report. The whole system was part of the tightly controlled system of government run out of Downing St for Tony Blair.
Under the Cons-Lib Dem coalition the spokespeople for different parties worked out of the same room in No 12 Downing St – a system Stormont might emulate. Inevitably briefing against the coalition partner took place out of the office and by the rival party establishments. But at least the spokespeople paid for by the state had to face each other back in the office.
There is a key distinction between press people paid for by the state and those paid for the party. The state is supposed to be objective; the party is naturally partial. Special advisers paid for by the state but appointed by ministers are exempted from this rule but even they are subject to a code of conduct.
Although hired as a special adviser as an unashamed new Labour partisan, a special Order in Council was passed to allow Alastair Campbell to give orders to civil servants
To recruit David Gordon as a civil servant using a not dissimilar procedure shows how badly the FM and dFM must want him. He is a civil servant rather than a spad because he cannot be owned by any one party. His success will depend on their joint resolve.
In Northern Ireland today supporting the government requires the agreement of two very different parties. It’s perhaps a little easier now from the days of the multiparty coalition.
If David Gordon’s appointment signals a more cohesive government by the DUP and Sinn Fein so much the better. To be effective he will also have to coordinate with party briefers if they don’t agree, no excuses will cover up the fact.
If it also promises more joint and joined up government as distinct from the party battle, it can only be a good thing.
As far as I’m aware there is no real lobby at Stormont. Without prejudicing individual contacts, a lobby is a useful clearing centre for agreed information and establishing basic relationships. It should also cover the opposition.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London