One remarkable feature of the government’s much anticipated environment white paper, out yesterday, was how unremarkable nearly all of the national media found it.
The first such document in 21 years, with some big, bold, interesting plans in it, got relatively tiny amounts of broadcast and print coverage. (Our next issue will give you four pages to chew over, in print or online.)
Why the hush? Well, it was a fairly busy news day, and the environment is not riding particularly high in the UK news agenda in 2011. Rising domestic energy prices are a much bigger story.
But there was another reason for the dearth of coverage: the environment department (DEFRA) appeared to want it that way.
It made none of its minsters available to talk to the press. It held no launch press conference (only an invitation-only stakeholder event, from which journalists were excluded).
Journalists could, of course, look at the white paper when it went up on DEFRA’s website along with the accompanying press release. But press conferences, advance briefings with embargoes attached, and other types of PR activity create the sort of buzz in newsrooms and editors’ meetings that secures airtime and column inches for a big new piece of government policy.
That’s certainly what happened 21 years ago, when environment secretary Chris Patten, flanked by his junior minsters, launched the UK’s first natural environment white paper. It got far more media coverage than the latest one. Of course, it wasn’t all positive coverage – but it did, at least, get noticed by millions of people.
So what was DEFRA’s thinking in being so reticent? Its press officers will not discuss this, so we are left having to guess. And the best guess is that ministers, or their civil service press advisers, or both, feared they would face hostile questions and receive significant negative coverage if they did put themselves in front of the media.
Difficult questions there would certainly be. DEFRA, and its secretary of state Caroline Spelman, have often been treated harshly by the press in the coalition’s first year, reaching a crescendo with the u-turn over state-owned forests. So it and she may have anticipated more of the same.
They might well have been wrong about that. Journalists are influenced by what the NGOs say and their initial reaction to the white paper was broadly supportive.
DEFRA’s media-avoidance tactic is understandable, given past media kickings. But if the department is serious about protecting and improving the environment, then it is not a sustainable strategy. You cannot look after the planet by trying to bury it in the news.