All quiet on the home front

It's not that government spindoctors have managed to bury bad news after 11 September: this is the consequence of being a government-at-war.

Josie Appleton

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An hour after the second plane smashed into the World Trade Centre on 11 September, Labour Party special adviser Jo Moore sent a memo to three colleagues: ‘It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?’, she suggested, referring to potentially sensitive plans to boost travel allowances and pensions for councillors.

The leak of Moore’s memo sparked demands for her to be sacked and accusations that the New Labour government has made controversial announcements in the hope they would be overlooked in the aftermath of 11 September. The UK Daily Mail listed 10 ‘stories they hoped you would not notice’ – including the appointment of a Labour donor as BBC chairman, abandonment of plans for a new national sports stadium, and the bankruptcy of the private rail company Railtrack (1).

There is no doubt the government has made policy announcements since 11 September that, in peacetime, would have become national scandals; and that these have remained fairly uncontroversial. But can this be put down to cynical spin?

As it goes, Moore’s memo was a fair representation of New Labour’s everyday media-management-based politics – with its planning process that divides announcements into ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’, so that good news is released when there are few other events scheduled, and bad news is released on busy news days. And yes, 11 September was a busy news day.

But major domestic issues have been buried, not because the media is merely distracted by international events, but because Blair et al are reaping the broader political benefits of being a government-at-war. At a time when everybody is focused on the bigger picture of world events, other major issues assume less political importance. When all eyes, hearts and minds are on the international arena, on the domestic front the government can get away with far more than usual.

Take the government’s decision to pull the funding plug on the private rail firm Railtrack, which has left shareholders livid after losing most or all of their investment. Railtrack will be converted into a not-for-profit company to be owned by train operating companies, passenger groups and the unions (2) – effectively re-nationalisationing the railways. For a government that has made a big issue of encouraging private investment in public services, the relative lack of scandal surrounding this story must have seemed heaven-sent.

On 4 October, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced the collapse of plans to build a national athletics stadium at Picketts Lock – effectively wrecking hopes of hosting the World Athletics Championships. And damning scientific assessments of the government’s handling of the foot-and-mouth outbreak earlier this year found that the outbreak would now be over, had a more aggressive culling programme been implemented earlier in the crisis (3). At any other time, either of these pieces of news would be enough to cause a major headache for the government – but now it can ride out what criticisms it does get with relative ease.

There was also the release of the Lord Justice Auld report on overhauling the criminal justice system – which included the proposal to restrict the right to trial by jury, so that minor offences that carry up to two years’ imprisonment would instead be heard by a hybrid court led by a district judge and two justices of the peace (4). The Bar Council condemned the report as ‘a major assault on jury trial’ that ‘places little trust in ordinary citizens’. Yet despite the serious implications of this report, it had nothing to do with the war – and so received little attention from non-legal quarters.

There is no doubt that, so far as domestic policy and politics goes, the UK government is benefiting from the war. But to explain this in terms of successful spin assumes too much power on the part of special advisers, and gives too little recognition to the political dynamics surrounding a government-at-war.

After all, there is little evidence that these announcements were brought forward by spin-driven advisers to coincide with the international situation. As the Guardian noted, most of the announcements were due to take place about this time, anyway: the report rejecting the building of a national sports stadium had already ‘been delayed twice’; the Railtrack decision – in the making for a month – was forced by the financial crisis of the company (5). And the foot-and-mouth reviews were published in the independent publications Science and Nature, not under the control of spindoctors.

The difference is that, in peacetime, Blair’s government would have been forced to justify its policy, and confront its critics. In a war situation, the pressure to do either of these things is off. Other news happens, other developments take place, yet the government is held to account only for what it does in the international arena. The government is not totally immune to criticism, of course: despite the focus on events abroad, the Jo Moore scandal is likely to run and run, and transport secretary Stephen Byers will take some stick from Railtrack shareholders. But when there’s a war on, all these things seem to matter less.

There should be more pressure on the government to account for its domestic decisions; and it should not be allowed to use the war to introduce otherwise controversial policy through the back door. But that pressure will not come from publishing lists of the news that we missed – or from sacking spindoctors.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Attack on USA

(1) Daily Mail, 10 October 2001

(2) Financial Times, 8 October 2001

(3) Cull delay ‘worsened epidemic, BBC Online, 4 October 2001

(4) Justice reforms target jury trials, BBC Online, 9 October 2001

(5) Guardian, 10 October 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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