Coalition government has not put an end to political spin but so far the Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration has been refreshingly free of an over-arching concentration on media presentation. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been as resolute as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in their determination to command the news agenda while not allowing their urge to manipulate the media to become an obsession. Political journalists like nothing more than a change of government...new faces in Downing Street and a flurry of announcements are a tonic for hard-bitten correspondents. We cannot wait to start getting the measure of the new ministerial line- up and to check out their policies. During its first few weeks in office a new administration tends to be pushing at an open door when promoting fresh ideas and initiatives.
New Prime Ministers can expect, almost as of right a generous honeymoon from the news media; we are duty bound to reflect the prevailing view of most voters that any new government should at least be given a chance. But the 2010 general election was not only a game-changer in that it produced the first peacetime coalition since the 1930s. As well as having to pacify potential dissidents among the ranks of Conservatives and Liberal Democrat MPs, David Cameron and Nick Clegg also had to break the mould of political public relations by merging together two hitherto hostile teams of party propagandists. Among the political apparatchiks of Westminster and Whitehall, the special advisers – the party spin doctors – tend to be the most tribal.
The Blairite v Brownite fight to the death between their competing ministerial aides illustrated the folly of allowing these so-called insiders free rein to offer journalists anonymous and negative briefings. But Cameron and Clegg seem to believe they can avoid the mistakes of the past.
They each took the bold step of taking with them into government their key media advisers – two teams of political propagandists who had been briefing against each other throughout the general election and who were about to be jointly charged with the task of managing the coalition’s relationship with the media and of then trying to speak with one voice on the government’s behalf. Within a matter of days their cross-party partnership was tested to the limit by the shock resignation of the Treasury chief secretary David Laws; by the need to present a united front during an unexpected mini-reshuffle of the cabinet; and then by having to handle the difficult fallout from the break-up of Chris Huhne’s marriage.
While there were numerous theories about the motives of the Tory press in targeting Laws and then Huhne – and some talk of a conspiracy on the Tory right to undermine the Liberal Democrats – the coalition got through both crises without the collateral damage of poisonous off-the-record quotes from within the government.
As far as I could see, there were none of anonymous tit-for-tat attacks from Downing Street or Treasury insiders which were all too common under Labour and which were so corrosive of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. So let me give credit where credit is due: in recent weeks the coalition’s communications team do seem to have a delivered something of a master class in trailing government announcements in order to maintain an unrelenting focus on policy initiatives and the future direction of the government. It was Alastair Campbell who institutionalised within Whitehall the whole process of trailing announcements – of leaking them in advance to favoured news outlets – as a way capturing the news agenda and of trying to channel the debate in a direction which would be most beneficial to the Blair government. George Osborne had no hesitation in blaming Gordon Brown for the economic mess which the coalition inherited. But equally he had no inhibitions about copying the former Chancellor’s trick of blatantly pre-empting his announcements.
The only surprise left when Osborne finally opened the famous red box and unveiled the coalition’s emergency Budget was the precise size of the increase in value added tax – up by 2.5 per cent and a new rate of 20 per cent to take effect in January 2011.
Almost other every measure in his Budget had been comprehensively briefed about in advance by his media team at the Treasury.
Preparing the public in advance for what was to come was a tactic which Brown always believed was essential to avoid catching the financial markets unaware and of upsetting opinion in the City of London. That same calculated tactic of trailing announcements in advance has been used for every major initiative made by the coalition.
Time and again in recent weeks there had been co-ordinated but separate briefings for newspaper correspondents and broadcasters ahead of most announcements.
A well-timed steer to the BBC’s political or economic editor designed to catch the Ten O’clock News; parallel briefings are held for the press in time for next morning’s newspapers; and then ministers are fielded for the Today programme or lined up for the Sunday political programmes.
In fact no opportunity has been missed to generate news coverage so as to build up interest ahead of a critical speech or key announcement. Just recall what has been on offer in recent days:
Proposals from the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to re-locate the long term unemployed to areas where jobs are available – an idea which had echoes of Norman Tebbit’s infamous challenge to the unemployed to ‘get on your bike’. An exclusive for the Sunday Telegraph was backed up by radio and television interviews with IDS, generating plenty of follow up coverage. · Kenneth Clarke pre-empted his first major speech as Justice Secretary with well-trailed stories and interviews to explain his concerns about the ineffectiveness of short-term prison sentences. · Nick Clegg used an exclusive article in the Sun to trail his Your Freedom initiative, inviting ideas to be posted on the Your Freedom website. · Confirmation of the referendum on electoral reform next May was trailed the night before of the BBC’s Ten O’clock News. · Theresa May has lost no opportunity to put the stamp of her authority on the Home Office. She began trailing her proposals for a cap on immigration from outside the European Union on the Saturday before her Monday announcement in the Commons. ‘Tories to shut the open door for migrants’ was the Daily Mail’s take on a story which went on generating headlines throughout the weekend. Unfortunately her enthusiasm got the better of her: copies of her statement were given to journalists on Monday morning pre-empting her own statement to MPs House later that afternoon. Mrs May was promptly called to account by the Speaker John Bercow and asked to apologise for her discourtesy to the House – a discourtesy which she said she deeply regretted and took full responsibility for. Her apology – for what after all was an attempt manipulate the media and upstage the chamber -- was the first extracted from the coalition and given their propensity for trailing announcements, will certainly not be the last. While Mrs May was apologising profusely to the Speaker, Cameron, who was sitting next to her on the front bench, began nodding vigorously in approval, as well he might bearing in mind his repeated undertakings that if he became Prime Minister he would not be sitting in Downing Street with the ’24-hour news media blaring out, shouting out the headlines’. He promised that the coalition would be a government of ‘quiet effectiveness’ which would ‘put aside the tools of the short-term politics, of the 24-hour news agenda’. The answer then to the question -- Is coalition government the end of spin? – has to be a resounding ‘No’.
If you take the advance trailing of announcements to be a technique that is part and parcel of political propaganda – which I do – then the political spin doctors of Downing Street and Whitehall are as active as they ever were under Blair and Brown. But – and this is a big but – there are significant differences in the Cameron-Clegg way of doing business when compared with the approach taken by New Labour.
There does seem to have been a noticeable absence of the poisonous, negative briefings which were commonplace under the Mandelson-Campbell regime.
Another equally encouraging development is that the coalition does not seem to be afraid of provoking a lively debate around its proposals. Instead of the counterproductive clampdown on those seeking to challenge the Downing Street line which was the hallmark of Blair’s first years in office, Cameron and Clegg seem far more relaxed when dissident MPs within their respective parties speak out in opposition.
Admittedly it is early days for the coalition and the new government has not faced a serious challenge in Parliament, but again there has been an encouraging absence of counter briefing or attempts to undermine potential opponents. An early pointer to splits in the new coalition would be the start of a spin war between Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers especially if it was based on anonymous sources.
And if the coalition fails to be even handed in its relations with the media and begins to exploit the traditional affiliations of the national press, journalists will suspect dissension at the heart of government.
But perhaps Cameron meant it when he told the Andrew Marr Show that he aspired to a style of government of ‘quiet effectiveness’.
By apparent good fortune, two days before David Laws’ expense claims were exposed by the Daily Telegraph Cameron gave a pep talk to his newly-merged team of media handlers. The coalition’s sixty six politically-appointed special advisers were told they would ‘automatically be dismissed’ by their appointing minister if they were caught preparing or disseminating ‘inappropriate material or personal attacks’. They were also reminded in no uncertain terms to refrain from briefing against each other or their partners in the coalition. Nonetheless it was a surprise to me that the coalition managed to promote a united message through the shock of the David Laws’ resignation and then the revelations about the break-up of Chris Huhne’s marriage. It certainly seemed to be a vindication of the combined media operation set up by Cameron andClegg. Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who was Cameron’s media chief during the campaign, is the new Downing Street director of communications.
Other members of the Tory election team have also been transferred direct to No.10.
Clegg took with him to the Cabinet Office his director of campaign communications Jonny Oates and other members of the Liberal Democrats’ election campaign staff. Coulson and Oates have one thing in common: they go out of their way – unlike Alastair Campbell – to keep the lowest possible profile and so far have succeeded in ensuring there is no danger that they might become the story – the fate of Charlie Whelan et al.
So personally I have been pleasantly surprised by the new spin regime. It seems to have adopted many of the techniques of the Blair years – such as very effective agenda setting – but with none deviousness or bullying which journalists so disliked.
The coalition has been refreshingly free of an obsessive concentration on media presentation. It has demonstrated an ability to command the news agenda but has not become transfixed by an over-arching compulsion to influence the media. We have had false dawns like this before.
But Cameron is the first special adviser to be elected Prime Minister and he is well versed himself in the black arts of media manipulation having served an apprenticeship in his early twenties as a party researcher, spin doctor and political attack dog.
So perhaps there could hardly be a Prime Minister who is better equipped to have a go at fusing two rival spin machine s and in policing the freelance activities of anonymous Downing Street sources.
(Nicholas Jones, Public Communication: Power, Media and Influence, Leeds Trinity University College, 7.7.2010)