McBride scandal exposes smear culture

One of Gordon Brown's ministers, Ed Miliband, said this week that the departure of Damian McBride should put an end to the e-mail smear scandal. But smearing is a cultural problem, as Computer Weekly discovered during Parliamentary debates in 2007 on the NHS's £12.7bn National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

One of Gordon Brown's ministers, Ed Miliband, said this week that the departure of Damian McBride should put an end to the e-mail smear scandal. But smearing is a cultural problem, as Computer Weekly discovered during Parliamentary debates in 2007 on the NHS's £12.7bn National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

During the debates the then health minister, Caroline Flint, - and a former health minister, Lord Warner, - made allegations against individuals and organisations, based on incorrect briefings they had received. The false claims have never been corrected.

The allegations named individuals and various organisations in the IT industry, implying that they had become allies of the Tories in making politically motivated criticisms of the NPfIT.

A few months before the debates, in February 2007, a small delegation representing the Department of Health had briefed the then Prime Minister Tony Blair that criticisms of the NPfIT were politically motivated. Computer Weekly obtained a copy of the confidential briefing paper which was given to Blair.

At a debate on the NPfIT in the House of Commons in June 2007 Caroline Flint ascribed to a report of the National Audit Office positive comments on the national programme that the NAO had not made. She then claimed that a Computer Weekly reporter, Tony Collins, had briefed only the Conservative Party on the NPfIT.

She told the Commons, "I am sure that members of the Conservative opposition are familiar with the content of the [NAO] report because it was laid before Parliament on 16 June 2006. I am sure that they do not rely only on the opinions of such people as Tony Collins of Computer Weekly, who has, I understand, provided briefings solely to members of the Conservative party and produced material for publication by Conservative party think-tanks."

Computer Weekly has not given briefings solely to the Conservative Party, nor produced material for its think tanks.

Separately, Lord Warner, the former Health minister who had been the government's spokesman on the NPfIT, obtained a series of e-mails which had been written by Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory. Anderson was at the time an adviser to the Health Committee during its investigation into aspects of the NPfIT.

Lord Warner cited the e-mails during a debate on the NPfIT in the House of Lords on 21 June 2007 when he questioned the political neutrality of Anderson. Lord Warner said, "Some of my puzzlement over hostility to the programme has been removed, since leaving office, by discovering people working together to campaign against this programme.

"The campaign seems to be made up of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, the Big Opt Out organisation, the Conservative Technology Forum, Computer Weekly, Medix surveys and the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, which I only recently discovered.

"An energetic presence in this network is a Cambridge professor called Ross Anderson. Some interesting e-mails of his have found their way to me."

After quoting from several e-mails, Lord Warner said, "I have insufficient time to entertain the House with more extracts. I am willing to let them be seen on a private basis by my honourable friend in the other place who chairs the Health Select Committee. In a spirit of bipartisanship, I would encourage Conservative parliamentarians to look closely and sceptically at some of the sources of advice they appear to be using."

Even today, and despite a request under the Freedom of Information Act, Anderson has been unable - yet - to discover how Lord Warner obtained his personal e-mails.

Miliband, some ministers and the Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell, see the Damian McBride affair as the beginning and end of smear. But the desire to try and debase the reputations of individuals and organisations to further political aims runs much deeper in the government system.

In the case of the NPfIT, the smears served only to divert attention temporarily from the most potent criticisms of the national programme.

It is worth nothing that a year after Caroline Flint's speech the National Audit Office published its second report on the NPfIT - which was strongly critical of aspects of the programme.

Links:

A "smear" speech on NPfIT critics in the House of Lords >>

Some NPfIT major issues - did the then Prime Minister get a full briefing in 2007? >>

Officials attack the NHS for "inaccurate" reporting of NPfIT incidents >>

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