Editorial: Who's afraid of the Daily Mail?

Travellers and refugees would have benefitted from the Campaigning Research Programme. The Government's decision to axe it looks suspicious, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector
Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector

An intriguing addition to the Yes, Minister lexicon appears in the emails, released after a Freedom of Information request, about the axing of the Campaigning Research Programme.

A message from third sector minister Angela Smith calls for a meeting of officials, special advisers and press officers "to sculpt the lines to take". The phrase suggests some sort of cherished artistic creation - which, in a sense, these things are. The plain language translation is "how can we spin this?"

The chosen line is that this decision had everything to do with transferring the campaigning money urgently into the Hardship Fund and nothing to do with political considerations.

Any doubt about this would probably be settled if we could read the relevant briefings to ministers, but these have been withheld from the documents released under the FoI Act. Without access to these briefings, the question arises: does the chosen line ring true, especially when the few released documents indicate that Downing Street was involved?

Anyone who has worked in the Whitehall machine will tell you that No 10 is unlikely to take an interest in the fate of the trivial sum of £750,000 unless it scents danger to the Prime Minister and the Government. The assertion that No 10's interest shows its deep, abiding concern about the sector's affairs is a nice try, but does it really convince?

The speculation is unlikely to go away that someone - an official, a special adviser, Angela Smith, her boss Tessa Jowell? - spotted late in the day that money was going to travellers and refugees and began to worry what the right-wing press might make of it.

With an election coming up, it would probably seem like a no-brainer to face down the puny protests of the sector and its specialist press rather than risk a hatchet job in the Daily Mail. And the fig leaf would be the 4.5 per cent boost to the Hardship Fund. Or is all this just too far-fetched?

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