Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

An early test of whether Gordon Brown is serious about his promise to turn his back on putting too much emphasis on presentation will be the approach to be adopted by Michael Ellam, his newly appointed official spokesman. Ellam takes over on June 27, 2007, the day Tony Blair steps down as Prime Minister. Will the new Downing Street mouthpiece remain nameless? Will Prime Minister Brown be dogged by the spin and subterfuge of the Blair years? Nicholas Jones, who has spent thirty years monitoring No. 10’s relationship with the news media writes an open letter to Ellam.

Whether you like him or loathe him, Tony Blair is a consummate communicator and for the Labour Party’s spin doctors he was always a joy to work with. Once the line was agreed, the Prime Minister rarely if ever deviated from the message which he had been asked to deliver.

And again, while his speaking style might not suit all tastes, he is eloquent, he can be passionate, switching easily from anger to charm, and he can deftly bridge an awkward moment with a self-deprecating joke.

On becoming an MP in 1983, Blair’s all-too-evident political ambition marked him out at Westminster and not surprisingly his potential appeal to the electorate of middle England, first noticed by Peter Mandelson, was then ruthlessly exploited by Alastair Campbell.

While grave mistakes were undoubtedly made and many questions remain unanswered, the security service MI5 deserves to be commended on the manner in which it published a detailed account of one of the largest anti-terrorist surveillance operations in its history. On the completion of the Old Bailey trial at which five men were jailed for life, MI5 immediately released a dossier of data on its website. All sections of the news media -- and the rest of the world -- had simultaneous access to the same information.

One of the country’s most secretive organisations -- which over the years has leaked like a sieve to selected journalists -- was demonstrating that it is possible to ensure equal access and a level playing field for the media. Whatever the shortcomings in its account as to how the July 7 London bombers slipped through the net, MI5 reminded the government, on the day before Tony Blair celebrated the competition of a decade in power, that there are alternative communication strategies to the squalid and politically corrupt spin routines which have so besmirched the Labour administration.

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.