Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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”

When previously secretive spin doctors break a self-enforced vow of silence there is usually more than one political agenda at play and that certainly seems to be the case with the unexpected foray by Andy Coulson into the current uncertainties within the Conservative Party.

By firing a well-aimed broadside across the bows of Boris Johnson – accusing the Mayor of London of wanting to see David Cameron “fail miserably” in the 2015 general election – Coulson has more than repaid the respect which the Prime Minister has continued to show for his former Downing Street director of communications.

But why would Coulson, ex- editor of the defunct News of the World – who is due to stand trial in September over conspiracy allegations relating to the hacking of voice mails – choose this moment to come out into the public arena after spending so long in the political shadows.

Since his initial appointment as the Conservative Party’s top spin doctor in May 2007 (within months of his resignation from the News of the World), Coulson has rarely uttered a word in public about his behind-the-scenes role spinning for Cameron both in the run up to the 2010 general election and then during the first seven months of the coalition government.

In my own book Campaign 2010, I made the point that Coulson’s great value to Cameron was that unlike his infamous predecessor in Downing Street, Alastair Campbell, he was not addicted to self publicity; Coulson always kept the lowest possible profile, had no intention of becoming “the story” and did not get caught up in feeding the news media with speculative stories.

Therefore I have to admit I was taken aback by Coulson’s splash in the GQ magazine (July, 2013) in which he reveals his “ten point plan for saving David Cameron and stopping Labour in 2015.”  Coulson’s choice of GQ is itself a deft touch, opting for a platform not known for its political commentary but seeing itself as an influential magazine with an aspiring readership.