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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 17:33 GMT
The blog from the heart of Downing St
By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online Magazine

Events at the centre of government could become clearer for the public with the launch of an independent website which aims to let people inspect exactly what Downing Street has said.

Who said what and how was it spun - this sort of question has become a necessary evil in modern politics, as journalists and politicians vie for the public's trust.

But a new weblog - DowningStreetSays - could possibly be part of the solution. Its aim is to give the public easy access to every word that comes out of the briefings by the prime minister's official spokesmen.

With a couple of clicks, the user of the site can become as well-informed about the prime minister's opinion of Clare Short as any of the elite band of political journalists who assemble twice daily for official '"lobby" briefings.

They can also find out details of what's said in much greater detail than the media is able to report - for instance on Monday they would discover that people working in the Downing Street press office had been placing bets on which journalist would ask about reports that Tony Blair once slept on a park bench.

Easy to use

The official Downing Street site has for some years been publishing a transcript of the briefings. But the huge amount of information on the government's websites makes it hard for the briefings to catch a casual browser's eye.

The new site, devised by a team of web experts who happen to have a passion for politics, extracts the words of the official statements, and puts them into the kind of format that, they hope, will be more successful at reaching people than the official channel.

Alastair Campbell
Briefings, formerly given by Alastair Campbell, now by Godric Smith and Tom Kelly
Designed like a normal weblog, the site allows users to send comments on the individual entries - something the official website is unable to do with the same degree of independence. It also can link to websites which are discussing the entries.

Her Majesty's Stationery Office, which owns the copyright in the text of the briefings, has given permission for the content to be used. Downing Street itself is non-committal about the site, saying it's a good thing if it provides wider access to its reports.

But the site's organisers know from checking their technical reports that people from Downing Street have been inspecting the site.

Creators

Tom Steinberg, a former civil servant at the Cabinet Office and one of the creators of the site, says it should help to bring more transparency to the political process.

"We hope that if people want to know what's being said about a story that involves the government, they will be able to find out and also get a range of different opinions from around the web and other users.

"Part of the problem with seeing this information on the government site is that you need to see it in context - they can't point to what the media are saying about stories or what members of the public are thinking. But we can."

He says the site poses challenges for some journalists, since people will easily be able to compare what has actually been said with what journalists wrote or said. But there are also challenges for the government spokesman, since their exact words can be discussed in minute detail by users.

"It's also a challenge to members of the public though," he says, "because if they write a comment that they haven't considered properly, they will be critiqued as much by other users as the spokesmen in the first place."


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