Government spin - a worrying precedent

An extraordinary story reaches me which pushes back the boundary of what is acceptable in government communications – what some call spin.

Not even Orwell in 1984 had thought of this one.

In recent weeks there was a meeting in London where the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT] was discussed. A record of what was said by the main speakers was kept by a reporter who worked for the meeting’s organisers.


One of the speakers at the meeting was an informed commentator on the NPfIT. Though he is known to say what he thinks, he chooses his words carefully. So when he was sent a draft record of the meeting, and saw that some of his comments were reported incorrectly, he checked his notes, made minor corrections and sent these back to the reporter.

Much later, when he read the final draft record, he saw that some of his comments to the meeting had been changed subtly. Words were added to a few of his quotations; some of what he had said was deleted. He raised this with the reporter who explained that the changes to his comments were suggested by the Department of Health.

At first glance this may seem innocent enough – until you realise that every change weakened or even nullified the point of the commentator’s main criticisms of the NPfIT.

What had been constructive recommendations with implied criticism of the NPfIT became inconsequential comment on the programme. We cannot mention the specific changes because it would identify the meeting and the speaker. We have evidence, however, of the changes.

We would generally regard political spin as the embroidering, manipulation or omission of fact in government communications. We have not before come across any department or minister changing the record of what was said by an independent commentator – a third party – in criticism of a government IT programme.

We do not criticise the reporter.His acceptance of the changes was a pragmatic way to finalize the official record of the meeting without further ado. He did not think the changes made much difference. Perhaps he was being naïve.

No doubt the Department of Health was acting in a way its officials thought was entirely proper. They wanted the speaker’s remarks to reflect what they saw as the truth.

But, in my view, this is a significant event: it appears indeed to be grim landmark in the government’s communications with the public over a large IT-based programme.

Links:

NHS withdraws website report on weaknesses in national IT plan

Civil servants told to destroy reports on risky IT projects

How government spin doctors reacted to a CIO’s comments that only 30% of IT projects succeed

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Orwell did think of it: Winston Smith, the protagonist in Nineteen Eighty-Four, was employed by the Ministry of Truth to change historical documents to fit the party line.

You write, "No doubt the Department of Health was acting in a way its officials thought was entirely proper. They wanted the speaker's remarks to reflect what they saw as the truth."

But what they did was entirely improper, and I can't see any legitimate reason for doing it.

Why on earth did they think they had the right to fiddle with what the commentator said?

By all means have clarifications and the right of reply, but don't rewrite the record of what third parties have said.

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