The unseen power of creative news management in government: The marginalisation of UK government press officers between 1997 and 2015

Ruth Garland

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Abstract

Purpose: Labour came to power in 1997 and immediately transferred many features of its party political news management style into government, overseeing the departure of most of the civil service communications leadership within two years, and developing the media management role of politically appointed special advisers. The purpose of this paper is to empirically examine the changes in custom and practice that operated behind the scenes in government communications between 1997 and 2015, asking to what extent such changes challenge public trust in government in a liberal democracy. Design/methodology/approach: This study takes a longitudinal, qualitative approach through in-depth interviews with former civil servants, journalists and special advisers, together with documentary and archival evidence. The data were analysed thematically through the text-processing software, NVivo. Findings: The paper finds that although the controversy over the 2002 dossier on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction was an extraordinary episode, the creative approach to news management that characterised this case still operates within UK Government communications: the bypassing of civil servants, a partial approach to the facts, selective briefing of favoured journalists, a lack of due process in the management of information and a disregard for the letter and spirit of propriety codes. This has implications for public trust and confidence in the workings of liberal democracy. Originality/value: The study adopts a mediatisation approach to the study of public relations, using the concept of the “cross field” to demonstrate how PR professionals share media management responsibilities with a number of different promotional actors. PR professionals in government must therefore navigate between the hidden, competitive and demanding worlds of politics, the media and bureaucracy, working with journalists, politicians and political operatives to craft the narratives that seek to drive public opinion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)416-431
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Communication Management
Volume22
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 5 Nov 2018

Keywords

  • Communication practitioner
  • Governmental communication
  • Mass media
  • Media relations
  • Political communication
  • Public sector
  • Trust

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