Can spin doctors be bad for the health of our politics?
Series four of the BBC’s hit political satire the Thick of It is in full swing. For my money, it’s not reached the heights of previous outings, but is still one of the best things on TV.
And this week, we learned that even our MPs think it’s close to reality. There is “more than a grain of truth” in the scheming, amoral ‘special advisers’ portrayed in the show, the Public Administration Select Committee said.
Its report makes fascinating reading on behind the scenes in Whitehall. Known as spads, special advisers are usually loyal to one particular minister and provide party political assistance.
They are often popular with journalists for their ability to give off-record briefings and speak more freely than traditional civil servants, without impartiality.
The good ones are chosen for their experience in a particular field, sticking to their department and working under successive ministers. To be fair, this is the case in the NIO. But elsewhere, you see plenty of spin doctors, following ministers around with no experience in their area of responsibility — all on the public payroll.
Foreign Secretary William Hague made a 25-year-old, Chris Myers, his spad despite no obvious experience in such a brief.
There was Damian McBride, adviser to Gordon Brown, who resigned due to involvement in a smear campaign against Tory MPs.
Another Labour spad, Jo Moore, achieved notoriety when she suggested that September 11, 2001, was “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”.More recently, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt lost his spad, Adam Smith, over close contact with a Murdoch lobbyist during News Corporation’s attempt to take full control of BSkyB
The Public Administration Committee tells ministers to be more careful about who they appoint as special advisers. Committee chairman Bernard Jenkin said they should be neither “shady characters practising the political dark arts” nor “political bag carriers” for politicians.
The MPs call for more transparency about their appointments and qualifications for the job, and point out that no minister in living memory has resigned over an adviser’s behaviour, despite some “astonishing” instances.
Despite a pledge by David Cameron to cut the number of spads on the public payroll, the total has risen beyond 80 — not far off the total at the height of the Blair government, which became synonymous with spin in many people’s eyes. Ministers have blamed the fact that they are in coalition for the need to beef up their teams. It will be interesting to see whether the rise of the spad continues after this warning.
Tom Moseley is Belfast Telegraph’s parliamentary correspondent