A good day to bury bad news?

Obama's inaugeration is the perfect time to bury bad news
Obama's inaugeration is the perfect time to bury bad news

By Ian Dunt

The government is being warned not to use blanket media coverage of Barack Obama's inauguration to bury bad news.

The appeal comes in the form of an open letter to Liam Byrne, minister for the Cabinet Office, from his Liberal Democrat counterpart Jenny Willott.

"The media mania over Barack Obama's inauguration must not be used as a smokescreen for the government to hide its bad news stories," she said.

The inauguration ceremony begins at 15:00 GMT, with Mr Obama taking the oath of office two hours later.

The letter refers to the controversy which followed an internal government memo on the day of the September 11th attacks, saying it was a good time to "bury bad news".

"This government has got into the cynical habit of taking out its political trash on the busiest media days," Ms Willott said.

"The appalling 'good day to bury bad news' memo sent on September 11th is an extreme but illuminating example."

Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, said releasing information at the least damaging time was natural for governments.

"We know in the past it has happened," he told politics.co.uk.

"At the end of last week, when all the other stuff was going on about Heathrow and Equitable Life, the government announced it would amend the Freedom of Information Act to exclude MPs' expenses. It didn't get a lot of media attention.

"Is it deliberate? Sometimes. Is it helpful to them? Definitely. It's part of how politics works."

The extent of media coverage for President-elect Obama's inauguration today is unprecedented, with the event's historical importance meaning the eyes of the world will be directed towards Washington.

Bookmakers William Hill have installed Gordon Brown as the most likely European leader to meet president Obama first.

German chancellor Angela Merkle is 2/1 second favourite and French president Nicolas Sarkozy is the 5/2 outsider.

"Whichever of the three manages to get to Mr Obama first will claim a big personal triumph over two of his or her main European rivals" said William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe.

"Gordon Brown will have been pulling out all the stops and calling in favours to make sure he is the first of Europe's 'big three' leaders to be seen at Obama's side."=

There is a full transcript of Ms Willott's letter below.

RE: Barack Obama Inauguration, 20th January

I am writing to you about government communications on January 20th, when Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the new president of the United States of America.

Clearly the vast majority of print and broadcast media will be dedicated to covering this historic day, which is leading to concerns amongst the public and MPs from all parties that government departments will use this as an opportunity to release a swath of 'bad news' stories.

It seems the burying of bad news on busy media days has become something of an unwritten part of the government's broader communication strategy. Although it is arguably politically beneficial in the short-term, it is ultimately only serving to damage the public's faith in the transparency and honesty of our political system. The 'good day to bury bad news' memo sent by a ministerial aide on September 11th is an extreme but illuminating case in point.

As minister for the Cabinet Office, you are in a unique position to co-ordinate government communications. I urge you to use your position to ensure that 20th January is treated as any other day, and not as a smokescreen to release bad news. This would be a positive step in restoring public confidence in our democracy and one that would be applauded by all sides of the political divide.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Jenny Willott MP
Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.