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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 October 2005, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Whitehall spin slayer's txt plan
Tony Blair outside Number 10
Blair: Getting the message across
Text messaging and company intranets are to be increasingly used to get the Government's message directly across to the public, Whitehall's PR chief says.

Howell James said new technology, such as texts, could prove better at getting the government message across.

Mr James, brought in to restore trust in Government after various rows over "spin" including the case for war, told MPs progress was being made.

But he told the Public Administration Committee: "It is going to take time."

Mr James was appointed in response to the Phillis Review commissioned by No 10 after Department of Transport adviser Jo Moore's infamous e-mail sent on 11 September suggesting it was "a good day to bury bad news".

He told MPs that such a situation would not happen now.

Behaviour

During the first hearing since he was made the first ever Permanent Secretary of Government Communications, Mr James said there was a more professional communications system being established.

One aspect of this would be using new methods to get the government's message across directly to the public, rather than always going via the traditional Westminster media route.

This could include "limited" text messages, such as promoting anti-drugs events to young people, and targeting messages directly to companies' own internal communications.

The unedifying spectacle of giant egos fighting like ferrets in a sack over a matter of enormous importance"
Paul Flynn, Labour MP

Asked about the effectiveness of direct marketing, Mr James pointed to leaflets sent to all homes last year outlining what steps to take in a national emergency.

He said that a review had found 60% of people were aware of the campaign - although, he added, the results had been less encouraging in terms of actually changing people's behaviour.

Other MPs asked about a summit held in 2004 for Whitehall communications chiefs, leaked details of which suggested widespread unhappiness at ministers' wanting to make announcements before policies had been worked out.

According to the leaks, there was a suggestion that it was better to use doctors, scientists and other experts to put across the government's message as the public trusted them more than ministers.

Mr James was asked if that policy had been implemented deliberately with the current scares over bird flu.

Corporate affairs

He replied that it was not a strategy to do that - but just arose from "an awareness that people expect to hear from experts".

During the hearing MP Julie Morgan asked Mr James what he thought about the confusion surrounding government smoking policy over the past few days.

He replied: "I think what you have witnessed is a vigorous debate in Cabinet about a developing policy... The policy has, as I understand it, been settled, and I heard the Secretary of State for Health (Patricia Hewitt) on the radio this morning setting (it) out clearly."

But Labour MP Paul Flynn said the week had seen "the unedifying spectacle of giant egos fighting like ferrets in a sack over a matter of enormous importance".

Mr Flynn accused Mr James of himself using spin - using "mealy-mouthed words" and "honeyed phrases" to "disguise the reality of what has taken place".

But Mr James insisted that he had not been trying to put "spin" on the week's events.

Mr James, appointed in 2004, is a former political secretary to Conservative Prime Minister John Major and was director of corporate affairs for the BBC from 1987 to 1992.


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