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.
Labour’s eighteen years in Opposition spanned a period of rapid expansion in media outlets and the creation of many new opportunities to influence journalists.
New radio and television stations were offering almost limitless airtime, heralding the start of 24-hour news. Having been forced to retreat from the days when they largely reported who said what and to whom, in government and in Parliament, newspapers began switching their attention increasingly from politics to personalities.
Interviews with politicians, profiles, diaries, guest columns and the like took the place of much of the heavy-weight reporting and the press corps developed an insatiable appetite for political gossip and Westminster infighting and back-stabbing.
Even though Blair later scrapped the shadow cabinet elections, bad habits had been acquired; the New Labour hierarchy and their multiplying aides had become addicts, adept at spinning stories to promote themselves or damage their opponents.
Spinmeisters such as Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan knew precisely which buttons to press but unlike Damian McBride do not seem to have had a crisis of conscience and haven’t so far felt the need to seek redemption by owning up to their all-too frequent nefarious and invariably anonymous briefings.
Out of deep-seated loyalty they all took inordinate risks and from my own bruising encounters with both Blair and Brown I know they were only too well aware of what was being briefed in their name; out of political expediency they looked the other way.
Several episodes recounted in Power Trip reveal that McBride, or McPoison as he was known among lobby journalists, was Brown’s willing pupil. He recalls a sequence of events at the 2007 party conference when the new Prime Minister was anxious to distract attention from speculation about a snap general election.
“Build up the young guys,” he said. “Build it up into a beauty contest about who’ll take over from me.” Here was Brown suggesting a replay of the routines he engaged in as a rising front bencher when he was hoping to top the poll in the shadow cabinet elections.
Brown’s compulsion to leak exclusive stories – a trick which he turned into an art form as Chancellor when promoting his Budgets – was also a skill which McBride acquired. He described how at the Treasury he went through the Chancellor’s office emails looking for up and coming announcements which he could trail in advance or perhaps leak in order to create confusion.
McBride does deserve to be congratulated on his double-edged declaration that Brown was unaware of the way he routinely discredited opponents by tipping off newspapers about “drug use, spousal abuse, alcoholism or extra-marital affairs”. Everything he did as a spin doctor he did out of devotion and loyalty:
“Some people will undoubtedly wonder why – if Gordon knew I was guilty of misbehaviour – he never either formally reined me in or had me moved on. And my answer to that is simply that there was something unspoken between us.
“Not what people imagine, that he would mutter under his breath about turbulent priests and hope that I would do his bidding, but the opposite. The unspoken word was from me to him, and said: ‘Don’t question my methods.’
“I offered him the best press he could hope for, unrivalled intelligence about what was going on in the media and access to parts of the press that no other Labour politician could reach. And my attack operations against his Labour rivals and Tory enemies were usually both effective and feared, with me willingly taking all the potential risk and blame.
“What I expected in return was simply to have the freedom to take the necessary steps to cultivate those media relationships, whatever that entailed.”
McBride’s confessional is mirrored to some degree by a more limited mea culpa by Blair’s former director of strategic communications, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser who has published Downing Street emails which chart the rearguard battle to prevent Blair being ousted from No.10 in September 2006 and his aides desperate attempts to prevent the Prime Minister having to endorse Brown. (The Guardian, 20.9.2013)
Wegg-Prosser says that if Ed Miliband wins the 2015 general election, he should “consider how the errors of the last generation should not be repeated by his”:
“Drawing a line in the sand with the nastier politics of the Blair and Brown era, but not the sound policies, would be my suggestion.”
Ed Miliband picked up on this plea when interviewed at Brighton at the start of Labour’s annual conference (The Andrew Marr Show, 22.9.2013). He said that McBride’s book was a reminder that the Labour Party and Labour in government must have no factions and no briefings. “I said that from day one on becoming leader...learning lessons from the past is the way we run the Labour Party.”
I hope that lesson is well and truly learned by Miliband’s media aides. One of the destructive ploys of the Blairite and Brownite spin doctors was their attempt to destabilise journalists whom they considered unhelpful.
Many was the time I found that complaints had been made about my reporting for the BBC. I had made myself a target because of my determination to pull back the curtain on their dark arts.
But it did not help my relations with the BBC’s editorial management to find that complaints were being lodged about my “inaccurate and biased reporting”; my “unreliable short hand note”; and other equally corrosive suggestions which only served to undermine internal BBC confidence in the objectivity of my reporting.
Having been described as “that tick* Nick Jones” in Alastair Campbell’s diaries when he complained about me being sent by the BBC to interview Tony Blair, I perhaps need to say no more about the skulduggery of Blairite and Brownite spin doctors and the vacuous nature of the New Labour branding.
* tick “parasitic insect...unpleasant or despicable person” (Oxford English Dictionary)
Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, by Damian McBride, published by Biteback
Illustrations: Daily Mail 20.9.2013; The Guardian, 20.9.2013; Daily Mail, 21.9.2013.