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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
When bad news is 'good news'
James Carville
Grid man: US spin expert James Carville
Jo Moore, an adviser to Stephen Byers, suggested using the 11 September attacks on America to bury "bad news". But, writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie, the government is well practised when it comes to identifying "good" and "bad" news days.

Following the advice of ex-President Clinton's PR chief James Carville that "politicians must always be ahead of the news cycle" New Labour has become expert in the art of controlling the formal "news agenda".

The key to this art is a planning process called The Grid - an extremely detailed forward diary which now dominates the policy-making process in Whitehall.

Government announcements are divided into "good news", such as a planned extra spending on the health service or "bad news", like the critical report on councillors' expenses which, it was suggested, should be "buried" in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the US.

This is basically burying this minor piece of bad news under the bodies of 6,000 people

The Rev David Smith

Each policy announcement is given a day in the Grid. Care is taken to make sure bad news is announced on what are likely to busy news days, during major sporting events, or at Christmas and holiday times, when the news is likely to get less attention.

Conversely, the release of good news is timed for slow news days when there are few national news events scheduled.

The Grid is also used to spread favourable news items evenly, so that each announcement makes the maximum impact.

Likewise an attempt is made to bunch all the adverse news on a single day so hopefully no one problem receives too much attention.

Good day for it?

The ideal bad news day is one which is well out of the way of national or local elections and, at the same time, dominated by planned events, such as a royal wedding, which are likely to preoccupy the media.

Cockerell and Campbell
Michael Cockerell with Grid meister Alastair Campbell
Even then a bad news day will normally be followed by a big announcement of positive news to give a sugar coating on the bad news pill.

The Grid is created and guarded by people like Jo Moore, one of around 80 personal press officers and policy advisers working in Whitehall.

Last year the Grid system was extended to include European Union announcements after a series of unscheduled EU notices upset the normally smooth process of news management.

'Euro Grid'

The government had been embarrassed over the summer of 2000 by an unplanned series of "bad news" EU directives on gay rights, the withdrawal of state aid for the British car industry and a row with the US over spy satellites.

Stephen Byers: Accused of rushing Bad News
But Downing Street still has no control over the timing of EU policy announcements. The new "Euro Grid" simply works by adapting the basic domestic Grid to work around expected good and bad EU news.

Much of the detail of the grid system was uncovered by film-maker Michael Cockerell, one of the country's leading experts on the workings of Downing Street and Whitehall.

Cockerell says New Labour's reported "obsession" with news management is a defensive reaction designed to counter extremely hostile press coverage which, party chiefs believe, kept the party out of power for a generation.

'Corrosively cynical'

In an interview last year Prime Minister Tony Blair told Cockerell that British newspapers could be "corrosively cynical" and "fundamentally dishonest" and that any government was entitled to take steps to defend itself.

"It's just modern government," Mr Blair said. "Over the past 20 years the media has intensified - become 24 hours a day. So you have to try to be smarter, sharper and quicker off the mark than you used to be."

Speaking well before the controversial 11 September memo was sent, Mr Blair's then press secretary Alastair Campbell added: "We are not the horrible, Machiavellian people as we are portrayed.

"There is a huge range of information that we have to get out in a co-ordinated way."

See also:

09 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Aide apologises for 'attacks memo'
13 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Spinning out of control
29 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Speaker attacks lobbyists and spin
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