- Category: The Role of Spin Doctors
All too many political journalists were as complicit as the ex-spin doctor Damian McBride in helping to propagate his smear stories about the ministerial colleagues and opponents of the former Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Anonymous briefings have become a cancer that is eating away at the probity of British political journalism and unless party leaders insist that the “sources” who speak on their behalf are always identified in the news media, then the Westminster lobby will never have either the inclination or will power to clean up its act.
As McBride reveals in his mea culpa – Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin – political journalists were queuing up to be drip-fed exclusive stories which all too often were used to mount personal attacks on rival politicians.
One of the roots of the corrosive culture of un-attributable briefings was the decision of Tony Blair in 1997 to double and then treble the number of politically-appointed ministerial special advisers – or spin doctors – whose job it was to handle contact with the news media.
Profound changes in journalism in the 1990s worked to their advantage. Because of aggressive competition from radio and television, newspaper reporters and correspondents increasingly switched their focus from policies to personalities; ministerial aides of the Blair-Brown era found the press corps had developed an insatiable appetite for political gossip, news of back-stabbing and the like.
- Category: The Role of Spin Doctors
All honour to ex-spin doctor Damian McBride for trying to shield Gordon Brown from any blame for the numerous attempts he made to smear political colleagues and opponents of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister.
But Brown, like Tony Blair before him, cannot shirk responsibility for having encouraged a culture which created a generation of aggressive attack dogs for whom un-attributable briefings became a way of life.
Both Prime Ministers could easily have reined in their aides and advisers from the start if they too had not been so addicted to spin and the manipulation of the news media.
Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, McBride’s insider account of his days as Brown’s chief spin doctor is another warts-and-all tale of the dark arts of British politics and one of the least attractive aspects of the Blair-Brown legacy.
New Labour’s all-consuming desire to manipulate political news reporting dated back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when Blair and Brown were up and coming members of Labour’s front bench team.
Jockeying for the best possible result in the annual elections to the shadow cabinet was the only game in Westminster for the party’s rising stars and their determination to promote themselves at the expense of their rivals was aided and abetted by profound changes which were taking place in the coverage of politics.
Ed Miliband’s running battle with union “barons” will overshadow build-up to potential strikes by fire fighters and postal workers
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
Ed Miliband’s first set-piece speech since the worsening disagreement over trade union financing of the Labour Party – and then the House of Commons’ “no” vote to military action against Syria – is likely to dominate news coverage of the annual TUC conference in Bournemouth.
But while the prospect of Miliband having to fraternise with union leaders like Len McCluskey (Unite) and Paul Kenny (GMB) will command the attention of reporters, photographers and television crews, those journalists with an interest in business and union affairs should not lose sight of looming industrial confrontation in two key public services.
News media coverage will portray the trade unionists’ annual get together (September 8-11), and Miliband’s speech (at 11.30am on September 10), as a dress rehearsal for what some commentators are predicting will be an even sterner test of his leadership later in the month at the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton.
A focus on party politics rather than employment issues will disappoint officials at Congress House. Nonetheless the TUC conference will be an important rallying point for both the Fire Brigades Union and the Communication Workers Union which are both gearing up for industrial disputes which will be fought out via a propaganda blitz in the news media and not just on the industrial front line.
David Cameron’s Cornish calamity: one holiday snap too many in the Prime Minister’s family photo album
- Category: Print
No wonder there were complaints from Downing Street about the four national newspapers which printed photographs of the Prime Minister wrapped in a Mickey Mouse towel as he struggled to change out of his swimming trunks on a beach in Cornwall. As he and his wife Samantha had already provided a pre-arranged photo-opportunity earlier in week, the couple had assumed they would be left alone for the rest of their holiday.
But what No.10’s media minders had not taken into account was the fact that the Prime Minister’s run of summer holidays – four in four months – had become a story line in itself and their holiday snaps had far greater news value than usual.
Whereas in previous years the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Times might have respected Cameron’s privacy, the temptation was too great; the Prime Minister sunburnt belly and Samantha’s obvious amusement as her husband tried to pull up his shorts were a gift for the headline writers.
For once Cameron’s sixth sense about how to play along with the whims of the national press seemed to have deserted him. He had left himself open to the charge that he appeared more than comfortable flaunting the fact he and his family were having a magical run of summer breaks while many other families, hit by hard by harsh economic times, would think they were lucky to have had one holiday, let alone four.
From the moment he first bid for the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 Cameron has been willing to provide far greater access for photographers and television crews than most previous party leaders or Prime Ministers. Indeed his willingness to allow himself and his family to feature in endless photo-opportunities – and his own ease in front of camera – has endured far longer than most seasoned publicists would have predicted.
- Category: Spin by Government
Reading the reviews of the one-man play, The Confessions of Gordon Brown, I had a sudden pang of conscience: Did I perhaps encourage the former Labour Prime Minister to follow a path which in some small way may have played a part in the ultimate defeat of a driven but tragic figure?
Back in the distant days of Neil Kinnock’s leadership – and Gordon Brown’s promotion to the Labour front bench – we often spoke to each other the phone.
As a BBC political correspondent struggling to make his mark, I found the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury an eager pupil when it came to trying to understand – and then exploit – the demands of radio and television news bulletins.
Few politicians have applied themselves with greater diligence to the task of feeding the never-ending appetite of the news media. During his decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer he effectively re-wrote the rule book when it came to publicising the Budget and I came to regard him as Labour’s “most prolific and longest-serving trader in government secrets”.
But as Kevin Toolis, the Scottish journalist, screenwriter and film-maker explains, Brown never managed to sell hope, the one commodity which mattered most of all, to a southern English electorate.
Toolis has crafted an insightfully-written monologue, performed by the actor Ian Grieve, and it tells how the “prize of power that Gordon Brown had plotted and schemed for all his life eluded him even after he finally seized the crown from his usurper Tony Blair”.