Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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.

Whereas many of the highly-alarming scenarios about electing Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister have tended to bounce back ineffectually, there is one narrative that could have a deadly impact on his political future.

His much-publicised appearance on the front cover of GQ, an upmarket men’s magazine, opened up a developing story line that could be seriously destabilising for a party leader who is admired by legions of young activists.

In describing the control freakery that went on behind the scenes for GQ’s photo-shoot, the editor, Dylan Jones, had no hesitation in depicting Corbyn as being out of his depth, being pushed around by his gate-keepers like a “benign grandfather for the family Christmas photograph”.

Younger members of GQ’s editorial team, who had been inspired by Corbyn’s rock-star image, said they regretted having seen him in person. They found him “underwhelming...they said they wished they had not met him”.

In contrast to the character assassination of Tory tabloids such as the Daily Mail and Sun, and their depiction of Corbyn as a terrorist sympathiser, the Jihadists’ friend, here is a narrative that is live, rather than historic.

David Cameron’s choice of the word “purred” said it all: a Bullingdon Club posh boy at his most patronising, boasting about his conversation with the Queen.

The Prime Minister should have needed no reminding of the danger of loose talk in the vicinity of radio and television microphones.

John Major’s condemnation of the “bastards”, like Gordon Brown’s tirade against that “bigoted woman”, at least had the merit of being expressions of anger and frustration.

Cameron’s gaffe was of an entirely different order: here he was sneakily revealing – and almost taking the credit for – the Queen’s pleasure at the result of the Scottish referendum, a breach of the royal confidentiality that Prime Ministers were respecting long before he was even born.

Ed Miliband could hardly have done any more to damage his battered reputation for fiscal competence than to have admitted he didn’t mention the economy at his last party conference before the election because the content of his speech was delivered “from memory, and some from the top of my head”.

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