' Very good day for spin that shames New Labour

Magnus Linklater in the Scotsman on Sunday

THE crime of Jo Moore was not just an error of judgment - though it was certainly that. It was not just tasteless - though she stands condemned for that too. It was not even that her attitude was "inconsistent with any notion of public service", as one of her principal accusers put it last week. Her gravest sin was to shed light on the inner workings of modern government. And what we saw was not a pretty sight.

That may explain why, five weeks after the event itself, the row continues to rumble on. Indeed, it has grown from one woman's base offence into a battle for the soul of New Labour. The facts are straightforward: Ms Moore, an adviser who works for Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Transport, was, like the rest of us, watching the terrible events of September 11 on television. As the terrorists' planes slammed into the Word Trade Centre in New York, she chose to send an e-mail to her colleagues, suggesting that it would be "a very good day" to put out any inconvenient announcements the department might have to make, since they would be "buried" by the cataclysmic events taking place in America.

The fact that someone could think of things like this when men and women were dying in the worst terrorist outrage since the war, was gross insensitivity. There were immediate calls for her to be fired. As pressure grew, Ms Moore herself apologised abjectly, admitting that her e-mail had been "a terrible error of judgment", and "something I will have to live with for the rest of my life". However, her boss, Mr Byers, stood by her, and though ministers, up to and including the Prime Minister, condemned her action as "horrible, wrong and stupid", they too have chosen to give her the benefit of the doubt. The most recent of them, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, argued that someone's career should not be terminated for a single mistake.

It will not, however, end there - indeed it cannot end there, because what Ms Moore revealed was not just a state of mind, but an attitude on the part of government which confirms our worst fears about the politics of spin. Despite all the assurances we have been given by the Prime Minister's press secretary Alastair Campbell, spin-doctoring is clearly so deeply embedded in the system, that it has become a way of life. Mr Campbell has now pronounced the death of spin three times. The first was after the forced resignation of Charlie Whelan, who engineered the downfall of Peter Mandelson. The second followed the last election, when Mr Campbell announced that he would no longer be dealing at first-hand with the media, and his work would be taken on by civil servants. The third was last week when he told all special advisers to concentrate on delivering the government's agenda and "stop chasing after every headline".

But can he be believed? The suspicion is, as one commentator put it last week, that Mr Campbell is only opposed to spin that he himself does not control. Polishing the image of ministers, ensuring that the best complexion is put on every policy announcement, dreaming up bogus stories to grab a headline, or inventing actions to draw attention away from bad news, all this has become part and parcel of public life. As Andrew Rawnsley's book, Servants of the People, which chronicles the Blair administration, reveals, everyone from the Prime Minister down has, from time to time, been involved in the art and practice of media manipulation. What was so shocking about Ms Moore's e-mail, was not her decision to send it, but the almost routine reaction of those who received it. Indeed, they seem to have taken her advice to heart, since a number of potentially tricky announcements were put out in the days following the terrorist attack. They were, as she predicted, "buried" by other news.

Calls are now growing for her to resign. But it would be quite wrong to assume that if that were to happen, the row would be brought to an end. This blight extends far further than the office of Ms Moore, indeed it penetrates the highest reaches of government. Last week, as Mr Blair continued his global diplomacy, meeting world leaders in order to persuade them to maintain the anti-Taliban coalition, Mr Campbell was continuously by his side. Observers noted how the Prime Minister constantly deferred to his advice. One even suggested that he was more important to the war effort than most of the generals.

Now propaganda in times of war is part of a nation's defence, but for propaganda to be effective, it has to be believed - particularly by your own citizens. If they no longer accept what you tell them at face value, then you will find it increasingly difficult to win their backing. A recent opinion poll suggested that this might already be happening. It showed that more than 80% of voters in Britain no longer believed ministerial announcements. They thought that news was often manipulated, and that this government was less than straightforward in the way it handled media announcements.

That is more than a worrying trend - it is a damning indictment of any regime. For if confidence runs at such a low level, then we are in danger of losing a vital ingredient in the glue that holds government and society together - and that ingredient is trust.