Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "The smear machine moves into overdrive"

Martin Sixsmith seems a very bitter man who is determined to take out Stephen Byers, having already seen off Jo Moore. Yet most of the Westminster lobby are prepared to give Sixsmith an easy ride, mainly because they, too, want to get Byers. For Sixsmith to get hacks to write that there is a smear machine working against him must have taken some spinning - and make no mistake about it, Sixsmith has been spinning like a top. As the Mirror reported, it was Sixsmith, not No 10, who was behind a plot to oust Jo Moore, and thus it is hardly surprising that Byers wanted him out. It is absurd to set this up as a conflict between the civil service and political special advisers. Yet that is how most of the media want to play it, conveniently forgetting that Sixsmith was appointed by Labour and is not a career civil servant at all. Sixsmith's decision to spill the beans to the Sunday Times was the act not of a loyal civil servant, but of an ex-journalist who knows how to damage the government.

But does any of this matter? The answer is no. The media are obsessed with any story about themselves, and spin-doctors in particular - as I know from personal experience. It is not often that I agree with Alastair Campbell, but he is right when he says that the media prefer to report the process of government rather than what the government is or isn't doing. The fact is, this spin soap opera is not as exciting for the public as it is for those who work in Westminster. What happens to a couple of spinners will not affect many people's lives; what Byers does with the trains will. The most interesting thing about the whole saga is that the Transport Secretary has a much smaller house than his former spin-doctor. It's obvious who has the more lucrative job.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Lord Snooty and his party pals