Ministers and the public service: right in The Thick Of It

Just how close do the sitcoms come to the real-life relationship between the media, ministers and the public? Here’s one experience on life in the public service.

Many a public servant would have caught a rerun or two of the early ’80s BBC sitcom Yes, Minister and had a chuckle at the hapless Minister Hacker being pushed around by Nigel Hawthorne’s brilliantly sly civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, hell-bent on maintaining the bureaucratic status quo.

The Thick of It, first aired on the BBC in 2005, is the warier, swearier version for the new millennium, with party spin-doctors ensuring no issue is untouched by their media meddling. The show focuses on the minister for the deliberately vague Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship and the various public relations bungles that happen on a (seemingly) daily basis.

The media’s role in these shows is as an ever-present source of potential conflict — a threat to reputations, the reason for rather than the reporter of government policies and the battleground to outflank the political opposition.

My experience in the public service has been largely positive, but not without its own battles. I’ve held job titles including industrial adviser, project officer, senior advice and conciliation officer and ministerial liaison officer. From the latter, I can attest that in real life the public service exerts far less influence over ministers than Sir Humphrey. There is, however, a no-less-vexed relationship with the press compared with the two shows.

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