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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 08:50 GMT 09:50 UK
Where even spin is welcome
Nick Higham
By media correspondent Nick Higham

Stephen Byers' special adviser, Jo Moore, has given spin doctors an even worse name than they had already.

Her gleeful suggestion, as she watched the twin towers blazing on 11 September, that it would be a good day for the government to bury any embarrassing news was we all agreed crass, tasteless, cynical.

But at least she started from the premise that even bad news ought to be released.

Simeon
Simeon: Advisers are technocrats and fellow exiles
She and her colleagues in the spin doctoring fraternity may seek to manipulate and manage, but it is an axiom for them that a government's job includes talking to journalists.

There are many countries in which that isn't so - and some are even democracies.

Exiled

I have just come back from Bulgaria, which currently has one of the least communicative governments in Europe, headed not by a career politician but by the country's former king, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

He was deposed by the Communists and exiled in 1946 at the age of nine and has spent much of the intervening half century as a highly successful management consultant in Madrid.

Simeon came to power this summer with the support of an electorate profoundly disenchanted with governments of both left and right, which have presided over economic collapse and widespread corruption since the Communists were toppled from power in 1989.


Simeon himself recently asked journalists to stop bothering him. His message: 'Just trust me'

Several of Simeon's ministers and close advisers are technocrats and fellow exiles.

They include the US-educated economy minister and finance minister, who previously worked at Lazards and Merrill Lynch respectively in London.

They may know a lot about economics but they have little experience of practical politics.

Their ignorance of good media relations may be one result.

Doorstepping

Journalists complain that Bulgarian ministers don't give press conferences or interviews.

It is hard to get reliable information about government policy or ministers' thinking.

Simeon himself recently asked journalists to stop bothering him. His message: "Just trust me."

Jo Moore
Jo Moore: Bulgaria needs you
Reporters used to be free to wander the corridors of the Parliament in Sofia, buttonholing MPs and ministers.

Now they've been excluded, with the result that they hang about on the pavement outside, doorstepping politicians as they leave.

Simeon himself was apparently hit on the head by a microphone boom in one of the resulting scrums.

No-one seems to think all this is part of a deliberate plot to edge Bulgaria back towards totalitarianism.

But the government does seem to exhibit a profound distrust of the media verging on paranoia.

Gossip

Bulgaria might benefit from the kind of professional civil service press officers found all over Whitehall, and from something resembling the Lobby - whose daily briefings with Alastair Campbell or some other Downing Street spokesman are both a conduit and a safety-valve for government and journalists alike.

Perhaps, more than anything, Bulgaria needs its own Jo Moores - those special advisers who in the UK offer such a useful source of guidance, gossip, unattributable discussion of policy options and, yes, spin.

There are signs the Bulgarian Government is waking up to the importance of better media relations (important if you want to get re-elected, that is).

Simeon recently instructed his ministers to give weekly press conferences and he himself submitted to a 45-minute "fireside chat" with journalists.

But returning from Bulgaria to Britain I was tempted to count my blessings at working in a country where the government really does think talking to journalists is important - however cynical both sides sometimes are about the process.

A version of this column appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.

See also:

09 Oct 01 | UK Politics
The nature of the beast
10 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Aide apologises for 'attacks memo'
13 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Spinning out of control
12 Jul 01 | Europe
Ex-King named Bulgarian PM
18 Jun 01 | Europe
Simeon's recipe for change
18 Jun 01 | Europe
King who came in from the cold
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