EDITORIAL: Whitehall clarifies Campbell's ad role

However well it could have been "spun", the involvement of Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's communications director, in government ad campaigns was always going to be seen as an attempt to "politicise what is supposed to be impartial information. Now ministers have tried to diffuse the row.

They insist Campbell will not have the power to intervene in COI Communications' work, and COI's chief executive will continue to report to Lord Macdonald, the Cabinet Office minister.

The fact that these assurances needed to be given suggests that a Government which has become obsessed by spin has miscalculated how Campbell's responsibilities would be viewed. Astonishingly, the Government seems to have been aware of the potential fallout. "Everybody knew people would go nuts, a Whitehall source admits.

The Cabinet Office seems only to have compounded the problem by announcing that COI's chief, as the co-ordinator of government campaigns, would "report to Campbell. With public trust in Blair's government undermined by constant stories about spin, the Campbell story only added grist to the mill.

Yet it's equally true that COI has been in urgent need of somebody with power and influence in Downing Street to crack heads together and cut out duplication in government advertising. You need only to look at the plethora of messages being directed at the burgeoning number of Britain's small businessmen to see the problem. Customs and Excise, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office and the Department of Work and Pensions churn out information to this sector with no attempt to co-ordinate their messages.

Campbell's apologists say he never asked for the role which is only to ensure high-ranking department chiefs don't duplicate their advertising rather than interfere with its content. Bringing greater synergy to government messages and ensuring they are timed for maximum effect is highly important. The Department of Transport's decision to split its £20 million account between six roster agencies, all of which would have been available to it through COI's roster, is a worrying reminder of what happens when individual government advertisers have complete freedom to go it alone.

The case for avoiding this is overwhelming and it's to be hoped that Macdonald, with his media background, has the understanding of what is needed as well as the clout to achieve it. Campbell's political antennae should be signalling the less he pokes his nose in the better.


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