Nick Jones

Spin by Government

The gruesome finale to Maria Miller’s seven-day struggle to hang on to her cabinet post as Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport was a text book example of the high-wire political news management that blighted the Blair years.

Her resignation within a few hours of the start of Prime Minister’s questions mirrored that of Peter Mandelson’s second on-off resignation from Tony Blair’s government in January 2001.

He finally stood down from his position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland less than an hour before the start of questions in the House of Commons, allowing Blair the chance to wipe the slate clean when he was challenged at the despatch box.

Mrs Miller was only too well aware that David Cameron would have had to face a near impossible task trying once again to fend off criticism of her own inept handling of the investigation into her claims for parliamentary expenses.

Her resignation was announced at 7.18am on Wednesday 9 April; she had given Cameron the benefit of almost five hours in which to prepare himself before he had to face the Labour leader Ed Miliband.

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”.

A Budget leak by the London Evening Standard – listing on Twitter the key changes to be made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – has lifted the lid on the lengths to which successive governments have gone in manipulating the presentation of financial announcements.

By mistakenly tweeting its own front page splash on the Budget twenty minutes before the Chancellor had even started his speech, the Evening Standard inadvertently confirmed the extent of the collusion between the Treasury and selected political correspondents.

Why, might one ask, would a Chancellor want his officials to give exclusive details of his Budget in advance to an evening newspaper in London? 

The answer is simple: the Evening Standard presents the City of London’s financial markets – and the rest of the news media – with the first considered impression of the announcements in the Chancellor’s red Budget box.

No spin doctor would dare to under estimate the potential impact of the Evening Standard’s front page; after all this is the first serious assessment of the Chancellor’s announcements. 

By mid afternoon on Budget days, within an hour or so of the speech, copies of the Evening Standard are landing on the London news desks of national newspapers and radio and televisions newsrooms. An image of the front page might well be reproduced in the early evening news bulletins – and if all the Treasury briefings have gone to plan – the thumbs up from the Evening Standard will, so the government hopes, have a positive influence on other journalists.

When faced by the cut and thrust of a noisy House of Commons chamber, cabinet ministers can find it difficult to execute a government U-turn without incurring political damage and a bruised reputation.

Michael Gove’s about turn over his plan to scrap the GCSE school exam system was billed in advance as a humiliating retreat. But the Secretary of State for Education managed to deliver a text book display of humility (7.2.2013) which took the sting out of what might otherwise have been a painful appearance before MPs.

Given the live transmission of parliamentary proceedings on radio, television and now the internet – and the inevitable trailing of most announcements in advance – political commentators and pundits have increasingly had to fall back on analysing the performance of a minister rather than the content of his or her statement.

Journalists are quick to rate an apology. Was it a trite “I’m sorry” with no indication of what precisely the minister was apologising for? Did a grudging, belligerent admission follow a previous attempt to “bury bad news?”  Was the minister just passing the buck, blaming everyone else? 

Among the seventy or so broken pledges which were to be slipped out “without any fanfare” on a Whitehall website was the coalition government’s unfulfilled pledge to reduce the number of politically-appointed special advisers.

The revelation that David Cameron’s closest advisers were in precisely the same mind-set as the spin doctors who worked for Tony Blair a decade earlier was a powerful reminder of a continuing obsession with media manipulation.

A Downing Street discussion paper giving advice on how to avoid the publication of “unhelpful stories” and “unfavourable copy” mirrored Jo Moore’s infamous edict after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre that “it’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”.

Clearly the presentation of the coalition’s mid-term review had been a cause of considerable anxiety within the Prime Minister’s office and the restricted advice notice says that while it was possible to explain why some promises had not been proceeded with, this did not apply to “some of the abandoned pledges e.g. numbers of special advisers.”

What is perhaps so ironic about this classic illustration of the spin doctors’ compulsion to want to “bury bad news” is that the adviser responsible for publicising the gaffe should, like David Cameron, have been one of the notorious “Patten’s Pups” from the Conservative Party’s ultimately victorious campaign in the 1992 general election.

After another a week which began with the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne trailing his own Parliamentary announcements – this time on the future of the banking industry – a Conservative MP close to the Prime Minister has defended the practice of government by leaking.

Nick Boles, a founder member of the Notting Hill Set of Conservative activists who backed David Cameron’s bid for the Tory leadership, told fellow MPs that the “public’s right to know” was more important than giving the House of Commons “a monopoly on first communication of the government’s decisions.”

He readily acknowledged – and defended – the fact that modern government had become “a leaky sieve”.  But it was, for example, because George Osborne’s proposals in the autumn statement had been trailed so effectively in advance, that the public’s “awareness and understanding” of the difficulties of the current economic situation was “far higher” than if nothing had been released in advance.

Looking back on nearly fifty years as a political journalist, there is no doubt in my mind that the power and influence of the British news media has shaped the politics of the UK – far more so, I would say, than in other European countries.

 

While the argument continues about the validity of Kelvin Mackenzie’s infamous 1992 general election headline, “It’s the Sun Wot Won it”, I do believe that favourable media coverage has in the past helped turn the certainty of victory into a landslide.

Tony Blair’s disturbing hold over the political and media elites of America can be traced back to 9/11 and the way he catapulted himself to the forefront of world attention.

To British audiences his tribute to the “People’s Princess” might be regarded as one of the defining soundbites of his Premiership but in the USA he gained the accolade of being the first western leader to make sense of the unfolding drama surrounding the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

In the face of an unrelenting flow of fresh accusations about telephone hacking at the News of the World, it was inevitable that Andy Coulson would have to stand down from his job as the Downing Street communications chief. But after nearly four years as the Prime Minister’s right-hand man in managing the news media, Coulson has demonstrated time and again his ability to connect David Cameron to the agenda of the popular press. 

Senior Metropolitan Police officers were not alone in their failure to get to grips with the scale of the student protests against higher tuition fees. David Cameron’s public relations team were similarly at fault for a lamentable performance in presenting the government’s case.