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Category: Spin by Government

Speeach to Cardiff School of Journalism, Cardiff University 23.3.2006

Spin isn’t dead and it isn’t resting. It’s mutated; I think it has definitely changed here in the UK, morphed into something else, and the way spin is delivered by the government is much more subtle. There is still a gloss being put on what the government machine is saying but the publicists and propagandists of Tony Blair’s government have learned from the many mistakes of those who once resided in that hall of fame of British spin doctoring…Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Charlie Whelan, Jo Moore et al. The bullying and hectoring which you see depicted in the BBC comedy The Thick of It -- which is done in a fly on the wall style and where much of the action takes place in Alastair Campbell’s lair in Downing Street -- is very perceptive but rather out of date.

The news media is now far more hostile to the Blair government than it was a few years ago at the height of Alastair Campbell’s power and that hostility means that the bullying and cajoling which New Labour could previously get away with is much too counter productive to be worth it. Another important factor is that journalists are no longer in awe of the Blair government, which many of them were initially. They no longer feel they must please the new government or otherwise they will be squeezed out and wont get access. So instead we have seen the spin doctors learn new tricks, they are far more accomplished at marketing themselves in a crowded media market place and in getting out the information which they want to promote.

At the end of the day, the only real power which spin doctors have in the face of an often hostile media is the information and access which they can offer and the only real control they hope they can exercise is over where they place that information and over which journalists, photographers and broadcasters are going to benefit from the exclusive access which is on offer. This is the subject I have been researching for my latest book -- the way in which information can be traded, like a currency, in return for favourable news coverage. I have been looking at several aspects of this, including the deliberate leaking of information. This has become institutionalised within the government and instead of saying they are "spinning", I should be more precise and use the word "trailing".

That is what is happening : government decisions are being trailed in advance in order to grab the agenda. Any one looking at the Sunday newspapers will see what I mean. Sunday newspapers in this country are highly political, they have a special place in the life of British politics and they have always been used as a political platform. Pick up the Sunday newspapers any weekend and you will see what I mean: lots and lots of speculative stories, previewing and trailing the government decisions and announcements in the week ahead. The other political parties do the same. Yes, this has always been done, speculation has been rife, but this is being conducted now in a much more sophisticated way and in a much more systematic way not just by political parties but by the state.

It is one of the legacies of Alastair Campbell, one of the initiatives which he put so much effort into. And many politicians would probably say this is the only way to do business with the media: to try to control when a story first appears and where it appears, whether you choose to place it in a newspaper, television or radio. The leaking of confidential government information has become commonplace: we know what is in a government white paper, ministerial announcement or in a Budget days before the event. And of course the reader, viewer and listener can be totally confused: is this story they are reading based on a genuine leak, has a whistleblower actually put his or her job on the line and taken the risk of leaking information so that it can be put in the public domain?

Or is the story a plant, the deliberate advance release of confidential information, and has it just been dressed up as a leak by the journalist, keen to give the story an edge? Because it is here that the spin doctors are clever, and more sophisticated. They know how to manipulate the competitive pressures within the news media; that the journalist of today is more likely to be judged on the number of exclusives they can deliver rather than their judgement or his or her ability to assess what’s going on. So often the news reports themselves are not of any real help in explaining what is going; readers, viewers and listeners can be mystified and cant often tell what’s going on. So that’s why I gave my book this working title -- Trading Information: Leaks, lies and tip offs…manipulating political secrets.

The change that has taken place can be traced back to Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997 and Alastair Campbell’s appointment as the Downing Street press secretary. The first thing he did in 1997 was get a change in the rules for civil service information officers -- there are 1,000 of them, and their job is to promote and explain what the government is doing. Previously, if the BBC had asked about a speculative story in one of the Sunday newspapers, the department would almost certainly have said it could not comment; that no information could be released until after the minister had first made a statement to the House of Commons.

That changed: the information officers were told they had to grab the agenda, that they had to trail government announcements before they were made to Parliament in order to prepare the ground, and that they had to back up the stories which would invariably have been leaked by the political advisers, these are the ministerial aides who act as the political spin doctors. So what usually happens is that these political aides and the ministers agree, generally by the Thursday of each week, what stories they want to see running that weekend in the Sunday papers; they choose the journalists who’ll get this information, which programmes will get the exclusive interview with the minister, and the whole government machine is being deployed to take advantage of this trailing.

Of course there are dangers with this: Parliament is ignored, there is less chance for the Opposition parties to scrutinise what is going on, and journalists themselves can be very cynical. Those who don’t get the exclusive story can write their own version, perhaps contradicting the official line, and this confusion -- this sense that the media sometimes seem to be in collusion with the politicians and at the same time denigrating politicians -- adds to the general cynicism of the public. Let me say straight away that currently many of the stories you see in the papers about leaked documents and official papers are entirely genuine. There is no doubt that the Blair government is being seriously damaged by leaks, many coming from within the civil service and others engaged in government affairs.

What seems to happen is that the longer a government stays in power, the more unpopular it gets and the more it is leaked against, and that gets even worse for the government if it is pursuing a policy -- like the continued deployment of American and British troops in Iraq -- which is highly unpopular in Britain and deeply divisive. Currently there a several prosecutions outstanding -- two under the Official Secrets Act affecting the civil servant and political adviser who are said to have leaked a memo which contained a transcript of a conversation in which George Bush tells Prime Minister Blair that he is thinking of bombing the headquarters of the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera.

Other prosecutions are outstanding over a series of leaks about the police blunders that led to the killing of an innocent Brazilian last July by armed police officers who believed mistakenly that he was a terrorist suspect. Believe me I am not trying to cast doubt on all the stories appearing in the press and on radio and television; many are the result of real investigative reporting. But not all the leaks are genuine, some are deliberate and this trade in information has reached new heights. What I discovered in my research was that this phenomenon of trading information with journalists really took off in the 1970s and 1980s when we had a period of big hostile takeovers. This was at the height of Thatcherism, privatisation was in full flood, millions were being made on company flotations and takeovers.

Public relations consultants in the city realised that if they gave exclusive information to financial journalists working on the Sunday newspapers, they would write favourable stories about these company takeovers -- it would help push up the share price, perhaps depress the share value of a competitor. This became known as the "Friday night drop"… the pr consultants waited until after the stock market closed on Friday evening and then passed the information to the journalists. This became so blatant that the Stock Exchange and then Financial Services Authority had to intervene to stop what was happening; it was fuelling what was known as insider dealing. The law is now much stronger: commercially sensitive information about a company listed on the stock market has to be released when the stock market is open.

Everyone in the City of London has to get the information at the same time, there cannot be an unfair advantage. If you listen to the radio in the morning, you hear day after company announcements timed to coincide with the opening of the stock market -- takeovers, new share offers and so on. It is an offence to give information exclusively to journalists in the way that previously happened, with the "Friday night drop". The City of London had to clean up its act…but obviously those pr consultants learned some useful tricks; that it is possible to pick out up and coming journalists, give them information exclusively and use them to get favourable coverage. The journalists can find that very tempting…the better their hit rate with exclusive stories, the higher their salary.

Although this practice has been stopped in the City of London, in the financial markets, it is still rife in politics and the media market place that exists around Westminster and Whitehall. This technique -- imported into politics by the spin doctors -- is being used to great effect. Journalists all know of the link between the Blair government and newspapers like the Sun and The Times which are owned by Rupert Murdoch and which support the Blair government. They get leak after leak and do it very professionally -- we can see the spin doctors colluding with the Sun.

Just three examples, three front pages, from the hit list of Sun world exclusives concocted by that heroic duo, Alastair Campbell and Tevor Kavanagh: "Japan Says Sorry to the Sun" ... for World War Two. (Sun January 14, 1998); "Historic apology to The Sun -- Argentina says: We're sorry for the Falklands" (Sun October 23, 1998); and "Why Size Matters" ... "Why my Tony is fit...and up for it five times a night" says Cherie Blair on eve of 2005 general election (Sun May 4, 2005).

In return for exclusive access and information, the Sun is the national newspaper which is the most enthusiastic supporter of the war in Iraq and the continued deployment of American and British troops. Day after day there are stories in support of "Our Boys" in Iraq. Just one headline gives a flavour of the coverage. When the famous Black Watch regiment was sent to Iraq, the Sun's exclusive said it all: "Exclusive: The Sun with the Black Watch: We beat Napoleon, Kaiser and Hitler...it's just another job" (Sun, October 25, 2004).

There is no doubt in my opinion that the commercial agenda of the Murdoch media companies is in tune with the political agenda of the Blair government. But change might be a foot. Rupert Murdoch was in London a couple of months ago, saying that he would like to hear more about the policies to be adopted by the new Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, who has put a new stamp on the Tory Party and done wonders for their image. Murdoch was hinting, who knows that perhaps his newspapers might switch back to supporting the Conservatives -- they were ultra loyal supporters of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in the 1990s.

What we have seen already is that it is the Murdoch owned newspapers, the News of the World and the Sun, which have just exposed two Liberal Democrat Mps for alleged sexual misdeamours….the Liberal Democrats of course being the party that has taken many Conservative seats. So Murdoch has already done the Conservatives quite a few favours. There does seem to be a changed atmosphere, another generation of young journalists coming through who seem much more amenable to the Conservatives, one can see already how they are hitching their wagon to Cameron and his young new team. That shift wont be lost on the Conservative spin doctors, they’ll be identifying the journalists who they think are most supportive; they be the ones who will get exclusive stories.

Labour did just the same in the 1990s under Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell -- they fed journalists who were supportive of Tony Blair and who helped get Labour elected. This is a very sophisticated business, selecting the journalists who are seen as being positive in your political direction and who are seen as being the most helpful. For example the Department of Health revealed inadvertently on its website its ratings for political and health correspondents -- assessing and indicating which of them wrote the most positive stories. So these are the hidden influences that spin doctors use. My criticism of this trade in information is that it is carried out on an un-attributable basis, the journalists don’t reveal their sources.

They quotes insiders, unidentified advisers, senior sources and so on. That has been one of the biggest changes in my career as a journalist…you can pick up The Times and the front page lead will be based entirely un sourced quotes and information. In the 1960s when I was on The Times that was just wasn’t possible. Unless the story identified who was talking, named names, then it just wouldn’t get in…and old time journalists are quite precise about when the trend to un sourced stories started. It was the late 1970s/early 1980s, the period when Murdoch bought the Sun and changed the face of tabloid journalism in Britain. We have a generation of journalists now who are prepared to make up quotes -- gone from "an onlooker said" right up to "a government insider" said this, "a senior source" said that.

In the media we all know that many of these quotes have been embellished, if not manufactured. My criticism is that these competitive pressures and falling editorial standards have been exploited by the likes of Alastair Campbell. His practice was to trade information on an un-attributable basis, he was the one who could engineer the exclusive story or the exclusive interview or photograph. Initially after Blair was elected, the Speaker at the time, the formidable Betty Boothroyd, was determined to stop the trailing of government decisions and the pre-empting of statements which should have been made first to the House of Commons. In her years as Speaker she caught six ministers red handed for having been involved in the leaking of their own statements.

She ordered them to apologise. I tracked each one back and in each case the trail of responsibility led back directly back to Downing Street -- it was the Number Ten press office which had instructed the minister to leak. But there is no penalty for this in Parliament, there is no way that Parliament can discipline a minister who fails to honour the Parliamentary convention that the statement should be made first to the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Members of Parliament can be disciplined -- and suspended from the House -- if they are caught leaking reports of parliamentary committees and parliamentary papers -- but ministers can escape entirely unscathed.

If the rules which apply to the disclosure of sensitive financial information applied to confidential political information -- data which should be released first to Parliament -- then Blair’s ministers would be in a lot of trouble. But I cant see this changing and if the Conservatives were elected I fear they too would be tempted to engage in the same kind of activities as the Blair government. This I think reflects the reality of the media in Britain -- we have a free press, which sets the political agenda, and the safeguard is that we have a broadcasting system which has to be balanced, has to give coverage to the political parties at election times. But the danger is that what is happening, this trade in government information, is corrosive -- it undermines parliamentary democracy and erodes journalistic standards.

 

There are some encouraging moves within the civil service -- the new cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who is head of the civil service, is bringing in a new civil service code to underline the standards which must apply to civil servants -- that they must not be pressurised into doing political work. However, there has been no comparable move to define and curb the activities of the political advisers, but I think O’Donnell is aware of this problem. One of the great differences between serious journalism here in the UK and the United States is that in American there is much more soul searching about editorial standards…newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times have tried to raise standards. Journalists like Jayson Blair who was caught making it up, was exposed and sacked.

Other journalists who relied on un-sourced material have lost their jobs, so have some television presenters. There has been a real awakening on this issue in the States -- a realisation that when information is traded anonymously there is often an ulterior political motive. That journalists shouldn’t use un-attributed quotes to allow one politician to attack another politician…they should be named and identified. And of course the revelations about what was happening in the run up to the war against Iraq -- the use of dodgy information -- has highlighted the danger of being spun. There is the beginning of a debate about this in the UK: a new institute to look at journalistic ethics is being established at Oxford University.

Pressure groups like the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and Mediawise are addressing this issue but have great difficulty making much of an impression. I cant really see journalists putting their own house in order: the commercial pressures are too great. In my opinion the state has got to take a lead -- the state must accept that democracy can only be underpinned in this media explosion by a requirement that information must be released to all journalists at the same time, that governments should not seek to trade information exclusively with one group of journalists and not another. This is possible now through the growth of the internet -- all journalists can be supplied information simultaneously.

I find one of the great strengths of journalism on the web is that many of the news websites do have high standards -- I am not talking about blogs or propaganda websites -- but news sites like BBC News On Line and hosts of others which are springing up. They are manned by young journalists, anxious to maintain standards, and lots of new sites do have strong guidance -- quotes must not be made up, the source of the quote must be identified. These journalists realise they can be exposed so quickly if what they are saying is wrong. They are not as partisan as papers like the Sun; the same goes for free newspapers like the Metro, given free to passengers on the tube, this has to appeal to all passengers, that is its strength, it cannot afford to offend racial or religious groups.

It is the same with the leading British news agency the Press Association, and the same goes for agencies like Reuters…they do strive to ensure that whatever is put in quotation marks is accurate, is correct. I fail to see why governments don’t take advantage of this trend, why they dont shift their focus to this new way of communicating …and give that greater emphasis. If all journalists got the same information at the same time, it would be harder to make it up, to fabricate, there would be no hiding place…and of course that would be a check on politicians trying to manipulate the media.

Such is the power of the newspapers in Britain, that no British government would ever seek to restrain them -- they have total political freedom, they have freedom to set their own standards and their defence is that they what they printed was in the public interest. In effect the newspaper proprietors police themselves through the Press Complaints Commission. But broadcasting is different. We do have a regulated system and I do think that is a strength of the British settlement -- a free press, a degree of control over broadcasting and let us hope we don’t have the politically partisan broadcasting like Fox News which is beginning to flourish in the States, and we do have a type of journalism on the web which demonstrates higher standards than many of the newspapers and I think that is encouraging.