Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Tony Blair ended his decade in power as badly damaged by the word "spin" as John Major was by "sleaze". How, after a mere one hundred days in office, could Gordon Brown have finished up with the same dreaded label "spin" hanging just as firmly around his own neck?

What the new Prime Minister became a victim of was uncontrolled spinning which is not only eroding the credibility of his government but is also destabilising his party and eating away at trust and friendship within the wider labour and trade union movement.

In place of the control freakery of the early Blair years, we are witnessing a new phenomenon. By uncontrolled spin I mean the unstoppable trade in anonymous quotes, leaks and tip-offs which, for example, did so much damage within the party during the final years of the Blair-Brown feud and which is still causing just as much mischief.

It is the same runaway spin which fuelled so much speculation about a snap general election that the hype developed a momentum of its own, with the result that Brown found he had boxed himself in.

How, you might ask, could I possibly sustain this criticism when in a recent speech on protecting individual rights, Brown committed himself to establishing the "freest possible flow of information between government and the people"?

What Brown was talking about was strengthening the Freedom of Information Act to ensure wider access to information and also perhaps a reduction from thirty to twenty years in the period which has to elapse before cabinet records and government papers are available for public inspection.

What Brown did not do was turn the spotlight on himself or the various covert methods by which the government supplies information to the news media.

While most seasoned political observers have very reason to be suspicious of what is attributed to "friends", "insiders" and various other anonymous sources, this has increasingly become the way information is traded and journalists aren’t entirely to blame.

Believe me there are a host of Labour insiders who do have a licence to brief the media and whose very existence and loose talk gives political journalists every opportunity to choose their own storylines, dare I say even to manufacture them, and to put on them whatever spin they like.

Dr Anthony Seldon’s new book Blair Unbound makes my point. The most venomous disclosures were from the massed ranks of the anonymous: "a Downing Street aide", "a No 10 insider", "a well-placed insider", "a long-standing Brownite", "a close aide", "a close colleague" and so it goes on, a total of three hundred "private interviewees", any source you like except the real source of the quote.

 

Reporters love nothing more than to have off-the-record conversations but we do have a generation of journalists who are prepared to make up quotes and a system of public administration which is facilitating rather than discouraging the exchange of information on an anonymous and often exclusive basis.

As Brown found to his cost during the run-away speculation about a possible snap election, he was no longer in control. The spin was running ahead of him. His coterie of acolytes and spin doctors, egged on by journalists, had become like pacemakers in a marathon, urging on party members to ever greater effort.

The two cabinet ministers who got the most blame for talking both on and off the record, were Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander, both of whom are well versed in techniques which can descend into uncontrolled spinning.

Politicians down the years have always availed themselves of such opportunities. But in my view what we have now is a step change: spinning and leaking have become institutionalised within the government and the Prime Minister definitely has form. Indeed if ever there was a serial offender on probation it has to be Brown himself.

He has always been an avid student of media manipulation. As an up-and-coming front bencher he was assiduous in courting journalists, ever anxious to satisfy their demands for exclusive information and access. He understood the kind of stories which the media craved for and he soon became a highly-effective conduit for leaked data which he distributed to political correspondents with pin-point precision.

Brown transferred to the Treasury his well-honed techniques for feeding journalists’ appetite for leaks. He turned into an art form the task of trailing, or should I say spinning, his own announcements and in my estimation, after nine years as Chancellor, he remained his party’s most prolific and longest serving trader in confidential data.

Brown understands the psychology of journalists and uses leaks and exclusives as a way of trying to discipline the media. If he can get political correspondents into the mindset that they too might get an offer of preferential treatment, that they too might be in line for similar favours, there is every chance they might be less hostile and be prepared to go along with the spin which the government is offering.

No wonder Brown gave the BBC’s Andrew Marr the biggest scoop so far of his Premiership, the exclusive interview announcing there would be no snap election after all.

And again, if necessary, he is showing no hesitation in going over the heads of political correspondents direct to editors.

When the front pages of The Times and Daily Telegraph declared they had "learned" and could "disclose" that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were to make a major concession on capital gains tax, then you could be sure this was code for Brown himself. No anonymous source needed to be quoted because they had heard it direct from Downing Street.

But it was his ill-fated visit to Iraq and his advanced trailing of a partial withdrawal of British troops from Iraq which showed that being on probation is nowhere near sufficient as a sanction. When it comes to his failure to curb spin, Brown now warrants an Asbo or whatever the equivalent is an anti-democratic behaviour order.

 

Therefore when he gave a promise in the run-up to Blair’s departure that under his Premiership cabinet decisions would be announced first to Parliament, it signalled what looked like a real change of heart; perhaps a previous sinner was repenting after all.

Brown promised so much in preparing for office. Yet, four months into his Premiership, despite a renewed Queen's Speech promise of a bill to enshrine in law the "principles and values of the civil service" he has still to show any real sign of ending his reliance on spin or restoring public trust in what the government says.

Brown still has the opportunity, if he cares to seize it, to make a clean break with the discredited media regime of the Blair years and his own misdemeanours.

He could begin the process at a stroke by allowing his Downing Street spokesman Michael Ellam to be identified by name, finally ending the absurdity of journalists attributing No. 10’s reaction to a nameless spokesman. Instead of allowing himself to be dogged by the spin and subterfuge of the Campbell years, Ellam could lead from the front.

Once clear about his own identity the No. 10 spokesman would have greater authority to make sure that important news was announced first at lobby briefings or on the Downing Street website, rather than through exclusive interviews or off-the-record conversations. He might even have a word with the Prime Minister and discourage him from talking direct to newspaper editors.

Delivering greater openness can only be achieved by having a press secretary who can speak openly and authoritatively and who can be held publicly to account. Brown might then be persuaded to be even bolder and allow radio and television to record and film the Downing Street lobby briefings.

What is needed is clear statutory guidance that special advisers must not undermine Parliamentary authority by leaking sensitive decisions before they are officially announced. Brown would also have to undo Alastair Campbell’s rewriting of the rules for civil service information officers which gave them authority to trail decisions before the announcements are made to Parliament.

Restoring trust cannot be achieved over night, it requires a step by step approach which I am convinced that Brown could deliver if he tried. Who knows we might get that anti-spin Asbo lifted after all?

 

"Paying the price of uncontrolled spin". Lecture by Nicholas Jones at Loughborough University, 7.11.2007. 

This article first appeared in Tribune 16.11.2007