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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK
The pressures of spin

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Smith and Fleisher - psychically linked?
Tony Blair and George Bush may be close - but for them to lose their spokesmen on the same day is verging on the paranormal.

Just a couple of hours after White House press secretary Ari Fleischer announced he was standing down, the prime minister's official spokesman Godric Smith revealed he too was quitting.

On this, however, there is absolutely no sign that the announcements were co-ordinated - so it must be planetary alignments!

And Mr Smith was clearly astonished at his own timing when he made the announcement to the regular afternoon briefing with political correspondents in the Commons on Monday.

He had always believed the demanding and high-pressure job was not one that could be done forever - he did not add "without either going mad or committing murder", though he may have.

He had simply decided now was the time to go, he said. And, with the government in the middle of its second term, there is logic in that.

Like his US opposite number, Smith expressed his admiration for his boss, stating he had huge respect for him both personally and professionally.

Fine chap

Both men, should they chose, could now make small fortunes in the private sector. Indeed Fleischer and Smith has a ring to it.

In fact, Smith may just decide to stay in the civil service where he would clearly have a steady and successful career ahead of him.

One of his predecessors under, Chris Meyer - a flamboyant character who clearly enjoyed his daily bouts with journalists - went on to become ambassador to Germany, then Washington, for example.

He is now head of the Press Complaints Commission so is, by definition, an extremely fine chap.

Others, like Margaret Thatcher's alter ego Bernard Ingham and Harold Wilson's Joe Haines, remain in huge demand from the media and on the speaking circuit for their observations on the state of politics today.

He is the archetypal, straight-as-a die civil servant who - with only two exceptions, neither of his doing - never strayed into the dark side.

But Smith is not of their ilk. Nor did he step directly into Alastair Campbell's shoes when Mr Blair's communications chief decided to take his black arts to the back room at Number 10.

For, while the prime minister's original spokesman was the incarnation of spin - even taking it to previously unforeseen and quite probably counter-productive heights - Smith is different.

Near resignation

He is the archetypal, straight-as-a die civil servant who - with only two exceptions, neither of his doing - never strayed into the dark side.

And few doubt that there were occasionally devils at his side urging him to stray. That is one of the pressures of the job.

Announcing his decision, he declared he had had a "fantastic" time during his eight years in Downing Street: "give or take the occasional briefing". And that jokey aside spoke volumes.

Only five months ago it was widely believed he was at the end of his tether, even near resignation, over the Cheriegate affair.

He apologised to journalists for telling them untruths after being "misled" over details of the affair by, presumably, Cherie Blair herself.

It was the second time he had had to apologise to journalists for passing on untruths in good faith.

Many believed he had felt compromised and was ready to resign over the issue.

But there was not a single member of the parliamentary press corps who believed he had deliberately lied.

That group hold him in near universal regard for his professionalism and his sense of humour.

He once famously coined a new phrase when describing a story in a Sunday newspaper as "a case of Sunday journalism meets Mills and Boon".

And watching him give briefings on the prime minister's plane, all dressed up for bed in his neat blue pyjamas is a sight once seen never forgotten.

The question his departure will leave is whether there is any longer a role for straight-as-a-die civil servants in the government's media machine.

White House spokesman resigns
19 May 03  |  Americas
A spin free Christmas?
19 Dec 02  |  Politics

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