EDITORIAL: Neutral COI is vital to Govt's ad policy

Research by COI Communications into whether or not Government advertising is losing public trust is timely. And not just because of the ever-present danger of government messages stepping across the thin line dividing impartial information from political propaganda. The fact is that there's a widespread public cynicism not just about Tony Blair but a host of public institutions, from the Monarchy to the Church. Against this background, COI is right to want to reassure itself that the effectiveness of government ad campaigns isn't being undermined.

Not that COI roster agencies need lose any sleep over this. The Government's perpetual obsession with presentation suggests little immediate prospect of a significant reduction in its £160 million adspend. However, the size of that spend, all of it taxpayers' money, reinforces the importance of not allowing information campaigns to be infected with political messages.

COI is widely perceived as having a good record in this regard. On a number of occasions, COI gatekeepers have asked government departments to reposition a brief that, in their view, was straying into political territory. The problem is that such judgments can often be subjective.

Advertising that some view as impartial might be seen by others as carrying a subliminal political message.

Is a campaign promoting the right of workers to a national minimum wage a valid use of public money, when the issue was a key part of New Labour's election manifesto? And what interpretation is to be put on TV advertising publicising tax credits featuring banknotes tumbling from the sky?

Blair's administration has pushed the boundaries of acceptable government advertising to the limit. The group set up to review government communications recognises this and its proposal to end the culture of spin by putting COI under a permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office should be implemented without delay. Meanwhile, it's clear that public mistrust is something COI and its agencies will have to be increasingly sensitive to if Whitehall campaigns are to continue to reach their targets.

There are also media issues at stake. Maybe the prevailing public mood means the Government should favour reaching out to people in their local communities via a trusted regional press. What COI agencies must never become are weapons in a propaganda war.

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