All too many political journalists were as complicit as the ex-spin doctor Damian McBride in helping to propagate his smear stories about the ministerial colleagues and opponents of the former Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Anonymous briefings have become a cancer that is eating away at the probity of British political journalism and unless party leaders insist that the “sources” who speak on their behalf are always identified in the news media, then the Westminster lobby will never have either the inclination or will power to clean up its act.
As McBride reveals in his mea culpa – Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin – political journalists were queuing up to be drip-fed exclusive stories which all too often were used to mount personal attacks on rival politicians.
One of the roots of the corrosive culture of un-attributable briefings was the decision of Tony Blair in 1997 to double and then treble the number of politically-appointed ministerial special advisers – or spin doctors – whose job it was to handle contact with the news media.
Profound changes in journalism in the 1990s worked to their advantage. Because of aggressive competition from radio and television, newspaper reporters and correspondents increasingly switched their focus from policies to personalities; ministerial aides of the Blair-Brown era found the press corps had developed an insatiable appetite for political gossip, news of back-stabbing and the like.
Another factor was that lobby correspondents began to find they were being judged more and more by their editors not on the accuracy or reliability of their reporting but on their ability to deliver exclusives.
McBride was an eager pupil of predecessors such as Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan and he soon realised, as they had before him, that the one real power of a spin doctor is the ability to decide which journalist will be the recipient of the latest and hottest exclusive story.
Invariably these tip-offs are traded on an anonymous basis and few journalists are prepared to resist the temptation of taking the exclusive; the deal is that the “source” must not be revealed, a condition which the reporters know must be honoured or that will be the last tip-off they are given.
Political journalists now pepper their reports with references to their “sources”; some almost like to boast that their “sources” are superior to rival reporters. But the viewer, listener or reader is rarely given even an inkling of the identity of the person who gave the information.
My own position – as outlined in my books on political spin and media manipulation – has always been that political journalists should do far more to identify their sources.
Loose phraseology such as “Westminster source” or “Whitehall insider” demeans the reporter and is an insult to the audience. If correspondents do feel they are under an obligation to protect the identity of the source, I believe they should still be more precise.
Was the source from the government, perhaps Downing Street or a ministry in Whitehall? Was it a friend or colleague of the minister concerned?
Personally I think correspondents should go much further. If a story which had been given anonymously was being deliberately planted and promoted in order to damage another politician’s reputation, then there would be good reason to question whether it should be printed or broadcast on an un-attributable basis.
In evidence I have given to inquiries into the ethics of government communication, I have always argued that the only way to curb the abuses of spin doctors – and to get journalists to face up their responsibilities – is to ask ministers to always insist that their aides speak to the news media on an on-the-record basis.
I accept there are some circumstances when off-the-record briefings are justified, such as occasions when journalists are given operational information, but speaking on the record should become the norm.
I was heartened after the 2010 general election that one of the first steps of David Cameron was to tell the combined Conservative and Liberal Democrat team of special advisers that anyone found briefing against personalities would be sacked.
Initially the edict was observed but as the strains of coalition government have increased I have sensed that there are just as many anonymous briefings as before.
While they have not reached the unprecedented scale of the anonymous briefings which Damian “McPoison” has owned up to, the tensions between Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers have become a fertile ground for a revived trade in anonymously-sourced exclusives about cabinet infighting and backstabbing.
After the undertaking he has given that he banned anonymous personal and factional briefings after becoming leader, Ed Miliband will have a lot to live up to should win the 2015 general election and end up taking responsibility for a new generation of Labour Party spin doctors.
Illustration: The Indepdendent 20.9.2013