Standing up (quietly) for impartiality as a public value in government communication: the case of the UK in the age of ‘political spin’

Ruth Garland

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


A culture of mediatisation has permeated central governing bureaucracies since the rise of 24/7 media, challenging the autonomy of public servants to enact the value and practice of impartiality in communicating with the public (Hepp, 2013; Garland, 2017). Meanwhile, a steady decline in public trust in what governments say has deepened the crisis in public communication (Whiteley, et al, 2016; Blumler & Coleman, 2015). This paper uses evidence from elite interviews and documentary and archival analysis, to demonstrate how, in the UK, political imperatives to ‘manage’ the news, has brought about an integrated communications service, where impartial and partisan norms have become blurred. Civil servants have occasionally broken cover to express concern (albeit discreetly) but the most robust resistance comes from their leadership role in a series of critical government and parliamentary reviews of government communications that uphold a notion of impartiality that goes beyond mere neutrality as a key ingredient in public trust (see especially Chilcot Report, 2016). Some political theorists argue that governments in many liberal democracies have downgraded impartiality to the extent that public servants are increasingly becoming ‘promiscuous partisans’ (Aucoin, 2012). Civil servants have consistently argued for a space within the public bureaucracy that is autonomous from politicians, where strategic communication priorities are derived from a notion of an impartial ‘public good’, and where normative considerations apply, such as equity, fairness, accountability, and, ultimately, due process. This paper brings together these discreet voices to consider impartiality as a contested public value and living practice. How should impartiality be conceived in the light of today’s mediatised governments?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationECREA 2018 - Confeerence contribution
Publication statusUnpublished - Oct 2018


  • government, mediatization, impartiality, bureaucracy


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