The other week, it was revealed that the Conservative party wiped all speeches, press releases and information on pre-election promises from their website, and also from the rest of the wider Internet. This can only be perceived as a move to delete evidence of broken promises and remove some ability to hold the party to account.
Removing and minimising the release of ‘bad news’ has long been a tactic used across the board by political parties to censor the public knowledge of damage and corruption within government. And, while the deletion of years of speeches and promises from the Internet is a much bolder and damning move by the Conservative party, ‘burying bad news’ has been an ongoing stunt for years, creating smokescreens to hide negative results and reports, to speed through unpopular and controversial laws and moves, and to ensure the public are unaware of damaging and failing policies. The control of the news agenda has been practiced by politicians for some time now, in a world where PR aids the control of people, the release of news is a carefully planned strategy, which ultimately aims to ensure the public have little or no idea of the true failings of government.
The art of this tactic was honed by ‘The Grid’ – a meticulous, detailed diary of events and forward planning used by government. Announcements would be labeled as either ‘good news’ or ‘bad news,’ and slotted into play where they would be most complimentary for government.
Bad news would be released on busy days, ideally coinciding with other big announcements and distractions, in the shape of major sporting or global events, news about the Royal Family, the deaths of the very famous, Christmas and so on. Good news would be released on slow news days, and usually consisted of more investment in public services or new social schemes.
A prime example of this thinking is the Jo Moore scandal of 2001. On September 11th, as millions of people watched on in shock at the terrorist attack of the Twin Towers in New York, Jo Moore, a Labour Aide, sent a memo out saying: “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?”
The news Moore referred to was a minor change in Councillor pensions.
Unfortunately for Moore, the memo was leaked and outrage ensued. Rev David Smith, whose cousin died in the attack said in an interview with the BBC:
“This is basically burying bad news of a fairly insignificant kind under the bodies of 6,500 people. That is very, very bad for our nation.”
Despite the reaction to this type of news management, burying bad news continues to remain a basic strategy of government. For the coalition, the continued attacks and failures of policy affecting the disabled, benefit claimants, the young and the unemployed have called for huge censorships and restrictions on information which in some way or another, bury bad news. Here are some examples of the coalition’s attempts to smokescreen failures of it’s biggest policies:
1. Mid-Term Review – 70 broken pledges without any “fanfare”
In January of this year, Cameron was bracing himself for the mid-term review. Cameron had announced in December 2012 that he would provide the public with an audit and report of all targets and whether they had been missed or not.
But on Monday 7th January, the information was not released as expected. On Tuesday, Cameron’s adviser Patrick Rock was seen carrying a document warning of “unfavorable coverage” over the “broken pledges” and insisted that the report could be published later that week without any “fanfare.”
In all, there were around 70 broken pledges including ones on criminal justice, pensions and the number of special advisers employed by government. The number of special advisers, responsible for the spin and PR of the coalition, had increased, demonstrating the continuing obsession with media manipulation and news agenda. Hardly the “transparent” government Cameron had promised.
2. Youth Unemployment
The coalition set aside £1bn for the ‘Youth Contract’ to deal with youth unemployment. It offered subsidy to employers for taking on under 25s and amounted to £2275 for a six month job start.
Money was set aside for 160,000 contracts, but in May of this year only 21,000 had been applied for. Just over 2,000 of these had reached the full six month grant.
It was clear the Youth Contract had failed to deal with the huge problem of youth unemployment, with figures estimating that a third of unemployed youth had been unemployed for over 12 months. 15% had been unemployed for over 24 months, the worst rates since 1994.
Instead of releasing this news, the coalition held tight to the damning figures for months and refused to put them in the public domain. They buried and avoided the reaction to the failure of policy by simple refusal of release. Most likely, this extreme course of action was undertaken because of the sensitivity of the issue as well as the low figures. Long-term unemployment can have long-lasting and hugely damaging effects on young people. Many have warned of a ‘lost generation’as youth unemployment continues to top 1m. The World Health Organisation say that it is a health time bomb.
Still, it seems the Conservatives have adapted their plans for the next election; removing all benefits from the under 25s. How touching.
3. ATOS testing
ATOS testing has undoubtedly been one of the greatest disasters of the last few years, and yet the government have continued to ply the French Healthcare company with money and contracts reaching over £3bn worth in 2012.
ATOS won the £184m contract to be the sole provider of the Work Capability Assessments. Yet, the grounds on which this contract was won was fraudulent, as ATOS only went on to provide one seventh of the 740 promised testing centres. This meant sick and disabled people had to travel for miles to get to the centres and even these were sometimes inappropriate for certain conditions and disabilities.
The Department for Work and Pensions withheld this information for some time, until revealing it in response to a Freedom of Information Act lodged by the Disability News Service.
Unfortunately, the plight of ATOS testing did not stop there, as thousands of appeals, many upheld, were brought against ATOS decisions. Many sick and disabled people up and down the country were voicing the anxiety, humiliation and injustice they faced with the WCA.
An audit followed, which unsurprisingly returned some ugly results exposing an “unacceptable reduction” in the quality of ATOS reporting of disabled people’s eligibility for benefits – news that would surely harm the government’s decision to allow ATOS to continue administering tests.
And then came the news of the Royal Baby. As the Duchess of Cambridge went into Labour, the DWP released the report which called for supervision and training for all ATOS advisers. ATOS testing had clearly caused unnecessary and undue stress to thousands of sick and disabled people up and down the country at the taxpayer’s expense, and this report highlighted how untrained and unable staff were to make decisions on the support disabled people required.
But TV news and the papers were full of updates on the birth of a new Royal, and this provided the smokescreen to mask the ill treatment of our nation’s vulnerable. The DWP did respond to some who suggested they employed tactical news management, insisting they had made the news as “public as possible.”
The coalition have done a lot to avoid the redress for failing policy. In these examples alone, we are not given a true representation of the continuing youth unemployment problems, the treatment of the sick and disabled and all policies implemented by the coalition. We have a right to know what the government are doing, and whether it is working. Restriction of this information is harmful to the people in need of help from policy, government and society.
Still, it is clear these are well honed tactics, and they grow ever bolder in lies, as Cameron purports to grant us a transparent government with audits of work, yet all the while the role of spin doctors continue and grow to present us with a maturing PR stunt.
We can never have a government that will solve our social problems, whilst we have one that seeks to disguise them. A government obsessed with media manipulation, spin and PR is one that will never be obsessed with serving the public the truth.
by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass