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Monday, February 22, 1999 Published at 12:44 GMT

UK Politics

Labour's media obsession

Alastair Campbell: Labour's sultan of spin

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Home Secretary Jack Straw's failed attempt to gag the press over the Stephen Lawrence inquiry is the latest example of the government's determination to control the media.

It was a habit New Labour learned in opposition, to great effect, and it has found it impossible to kick the addiction in government.

It is pursued through a policy of leaks, making announcements outside Parliament and keeping the Commons running on a virtually part-time basis.

The policy emanates from Downing Street and is policed by a media team led by Tony Blair's spokesman Alastair Campbell. Its aim is to ensure that nothing happens until the government has worked out how best to spin it to the press and public.

Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd is constantly complaining that announcements of government policies are increasingly being made outside Parliament.


And there is a more widespread concern that ministers routinely leak details of important policy developments before they are revealed to MPs.

So the home secretary's declaration that he had attempted to ban the press revealing details of the Lawrence report because he was determined to stop leaks was met with utter disbelief.

[ image: Jack Straw: Record of leaks]
Jack Straw: Record of leaks
"All the way through I have thought it extremely important that the procedures should be followed properly and that the first people to know of the report should be Parliament, with advance warning just before that to the family and to the police," he insisted.

In opposition, Mr Straw was a habitual leaker, as was Gordon Brown, now chancellor. They used the tactic to wrongfoot the then-ruling Tories and to try and seize the political agenda which is inevitably in the hands of the government of the day.

By carrying the practice into office, ministers have set new standards of manipulation and are now even accused of attacking the principle of freedom of the press.

When Tony Blair was elected, he promised to introduce a freedom of information bill. MPs are still waiting.

Former minister David Clark drew up the legislation but was sacked in the last government reshuffle.

Less radical

Since then the issue has been handed over to Mr Straw and, despite constant rumours it is about to be published, has not seen the light of day. The latest information is that it will be published some time in the spring.

When it is finally unveiled it is expected to be far less radical than had originally been expected - and it's a sure fire bet details of it will have been leaked beforehand.

The truth about the Lawrence report is that Mr Straw was determined to spin it his own way when he places it before Parliament on Wednesday.

The last thing he wanted was to face MPs who were already briefed on what was in it and able to demand particular actions from the government.

There is now the growing risk that the bitter public row over the future of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, will escalate between then and now and that his statement on the report will be dominated by the question.

But the row over the ban and Mr Straw's climbdown have also had their effect on his personal political standing.

Mr Straw was becoming a darling in the media. He was being portrayed as the safest pair of hands in government and the most likely successor to Mr Blair.

The shambles surrounding the Lawrence report has severely dented that image and ensured that his media coverage in future will be far less glowing.

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