I’ve been following with fascination the still-ongoing spat between Iain Dale and Sunday journalists: he suggests they wrote up a story Gordon Brown planted on the condition that no opposition spokesmen was quoted. He raises a reasonable question: why would a responsible journalist not go to the Tories or LibDems for comment?
One answer: you run the risk of the opposition parties telling the world about your story. Say a Sunday newspaper journalist gets (or is given) a story on Saturday morning. He thinks two other papers have it, but no matter: it will be fresh to his readers on Sunday morning. If this journalist asks the Tories for comment, they could go running to the broadcasters (or bloggers) to get their name attached to it. Result: it’s in the Saturday evening TV news headlines and is old news the next morning.
The same principle applies to government departments: if you have a scoop a department doesn’t like, they will often leak it to a more sympathetic newspaper with their spin on it. So you call them at the very last minute, to minimise their options.
Now I have no idea what happened with the Gordon Brown terror story, and heartily agree with Iain that his spin team get up to all sorts of ruthless tricks. But the “no calls” protocol – if it was requested by the Treasury, which the journalists concerned deny – is a fairly standard means of stopping a story from leaking. Precious few politicians can be trusted to keep their mouths shut nowadays. If you read an explosive story in the Sundays without very little reaction or comment, this is probably why.