Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

David Cameron’s invitation to ITN to film his family having breakfast with their handicapped son Ivan was yet another illustration of his Blair-like charm offensive to win sympathetic media coverage.

In their new book, A Century of Spin, the authors suggest Cameron’s Conservatives are nothing more than "a mirror image" of New Labour. I would go further: when it comes to the creation of his media persona, Cameron’s tactics are a virtual carbon copy of the strategies used to promote Tony Blair.

David Miller and William Dinan are to be congratulated on their detailed expose of the close and interlocking links between Cameron, his advisers, the media and the public relations and advertising industries.

Cameron has already put these networks to good use: mutually constructive relations between the Conservative Party and the executives and editors of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers have not only been revived but are closer now than they have been for years, thanks in large part to the influence of the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson who was appointed Cameron’s director of communications in May 2007.

Before Spin suggests there was once an age of innocence for government information officers, but Keith McDowall’s insider account of his time with the civil service in the 1960s and 1970s reveals that he was already trying out some of the routines that would later become common place under the likes of Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell.

In McDowall’s day, the “heavies” – i.e. the serious papers – were the only show in town: the highest accolade for a ministerial press officer was to secure a positive comment piece in the leader column of a national daily such as The Times.

By the 1980s, after switching to become the press supremo at the Confederation of British Industry, McDowall recalled the thrill he felt on finding that one of his stories had merited a favourable page one splash in the Sun, an achievement that still excites the spin doctors of today.

 Blurb for McDowall’s book castigates his successors in Downing Street and Whitehall for succumbing to the concept of spin, a media strategy that he considers “naïve and lacking in integrity”.

Before Spin captures the era when the national press dominated the news agenda, long before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, rolling television news and the constant reaction, and unpredictable impact, of social media.

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.

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.

Two swiftly-executed policy retreats seem to have succeeded in elevating David Cameron’s general election strategist Lynton Crosby to a status comparable to that of Peter Mandelson, arch manipulator for Tony Blair, whose dark arts were credited with helping to steer New Labour to victory in 1997.

Coalition government U turns on plain packaging for cigarettes and minimum pricing for alcohol are both said to reflect the hidden hand of the so called “Wizard of Oz” who is reported to have told the Prime Minister that it is time to start “scraping the barnacles off the hull” in order to prepare the Conservative Party for the long haul to the 2015 general election.

Judging by the ruthless way the decks are being cleared in readiness for the 2015 campaign he is doing what Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, says the Australian strategist does best of all: “winning out the stuff” that politicians might think is important but which does not meet the Crosby mantra that “message matters most”.

And, if the robust stances being adopted by Conservative ministers on issues such as illegal immigration and social security fraud are any guide, the ground is already being prepared for a bruising confrontation with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

But it is the speed with which Crosby has succeeded – at least for the present – in closing down stories about the links between himself, his partner Mark Textor and the tobacco company Philip Morris Ltd  – a connection first revealed by Spinwatch as long ago as 2005 – which is the clearest illustration of his likely effectiveness as “Dave’s Rottweiler”