Lords say little about online comms

There’s something thoroughly disappointing about the House of Lords Communications Committee’s report on government communication, published today. There’s nothing inherently wrong in the conclusions it reaches, but with the greatest respect to Their Lordships, this same report could have been written a decade ago.
Online communication gets little more than a passing mention, and even then, it does little more than summarise things already in existence. The brief section on online doesn’t do much more than summarise the evidence given by the Citizens Advice Bureau – as blogged by yours truly at the time.
The highlight of the report’s conclusions is presumably the call for live streaming of the morning Lobby Briefing and ‘all major press conferences’; not a bad thing, of course. But the main reason for doing so is to make the government-media relationship more open and transparent, to ‘dispel any continuing myths about the Lobby and the sense of secrecy it still engenders’. In other words, it’s the preservation of the old established order by new means.
The Lords rejected Howell James’s concerns at a civil servant being put on camera every morning; but I don’t entirely accept that the media profile of the Chief Medical Officer or Chief Scientific Adviser represent appropriate precedents. The Lobby may understand the ‘rules of engagement’, where a civil servant is speaking on behalf of a politician; but I’m not sure the average viewer of the news would make any such distinction.
The way I see it, Mike Ellam isn’t Alastair Campbell. If we’re following the White House model, with televised briefings, surely we need to go the whole hog – and make the chief spokesman an explicitly political appointee. At least then, it would be clear where we all stand.
What’s most depressing is that these reports don’t come around very often; and online’s role this time round has purely been as a crutch for ‘conventional’ communication. We’ve missed the opportunity to say something really positive and exciting about the potential of online for true, two-way communication between government and citizen.

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