Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website
The answer to my question has to be a resounding ‘No’. In many ways the presentation of the emergence and then early months of the coalition government has been a master class in commanding the news agenda. But there is one very big difference between the combined spin operation of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats when compared with that of New Labour. Where they differ is in the way the coalition has been able to discipline itself, how it has managed to avoid, at least for its first four months in office, the divisive anonymous briefings which from the very start of Tony Blair’s leadership proved so debilitating for the Labour Party and later the Labour government.   The Blair-Brown split started in 1994, long before they reached government. They each created rival spin operations which immediately began to brief against each other with a vengeance.  I played a part in identifying Charlie Whelan as the Brownite source of the line that Bobby was the codename for Peter Mandelson when he performed his original clandestine operation to promote Tony against Gordon.  That psycho-drama is still being played out almost two decades later as David and Ed Miliband fight it out for the party’s leadership. Labour paid a high price for being so dysfunctional.  Its tribal loyalties fuelled an obsession with manipulating the media which ultimately became self destructive.  And the collateral damage included a heightened sense of public distrust – and later contempt – for the whole concept of political public relations and policy presentation. Labour were incapable of learning from their own mistakes, that a culture of anonymous negative briefings was destroying their own credibility. That lesson wasn’t lost on David Cameron and George Osborne.  The 2005 Conservative leadership election provided lean pickings for political journalists looking for anonymous quotes to suggest a Cameron-Osborne split. And that remains the case to this day.  So far the coalition government – despite personal dramas among senior Liberal Democrats and the trauma of Osborne’s spending cuts – has not been plagued by the kind of poisonous briefings and counter-briefings which began to surface once Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan were able to establish their rival spin regimes.  I agree it may not continue for long, no political honeymoon can last forever, and the party conferences and the decisions to be made in the autumn spending round will be the first real test. But the many journalists currently on coalition watch have yet to cite examples of the Tory tribe of spin doctors, under the command of Andy Coulson, briefing against the Lib Dem spinners under their pr supremo Jonny Oates. In my opinion the first sign of a real fault line in the coalition will be evidence that journalists are being fed with anonymous quotes attacking one side or the other...and that rival ministers are caught up in a ceaseless war of spin. So far, whenever a coalition minister has dropped a clanger, the story has been instantly closed down but without the character assassination that became the hallmark of Mandelson, Campbell, Whelan & Co.  For example, when the Conservative health minister Anne Milton floated the possibility of withdrawing free milk from the under fives, the idea was squashed and dropped like a stone before the breakfast programmes were even off the air. But Ms Milton didn’t suffer the same fate as the likes of Harriet Harman or Frank Field whose reputations were instantly trashed in the news media via off the record briefings by the New Labour spin machine.And the same goes for the Liberal Democrats in the cabinet: David Laws’ sudden and unexpected resignation followed a story in the Daily Telegraph which exposed him for renting rooms from his partner; Chris Huhne announced his separation after the News of World disclosed he was in a ‘serious relationship’ with another woman; we have also seen the regular trashing of Nick Clegg in the Tory tabloids and his portrayal as Calamity Clegg.  In my opinion these stories were the result of journalistic initiative; the Lib Dems were bound to be a target of the right-wing press having risen to power from nowhere. I have looked for the tell-tale finger prints of Tory ‘insiders’ but I couldn’t find any evidence of these stories having been fuelled by off-the-record quotes from well-placed anonymous sources. But I am not trying even remotely to suggest that the coalition has put a stop to spin.  Undoubtedly its biggest pr success has been its ability to spin the line that the Labour government, and Gordon Brown in particular – rather than the wider financial crisis – are to blame for the need to hack back so savagely on public spending. Admittedly Labour’s leadership candidates haven’t helped in countering this spin. Their often knee jerk attacks even on the expenditure cuts which were already envisaged by Alastair Darling have reinforced the story line that Labour were reckless with government spending.   However, what concerns me is the disconcerting downside to the coalition’s tactic of using horror stories to prepare the public for what is in store. The classic explanation is that come October the cuts will not turn out to be as bad as predicted and there will be relief all round...a pr trick that politicians have used time and again.  But something far more insidious has been afoot.  What has been emerging are signs of a far nastier side to the coalition’s spin regime, a vivid illustration of why David Cameron was so determined to woo the Murdoch press. Given the holidays and the Parliamentary recess, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Sun’s ongoing campaign against social security scroungers. David Cameron launched it in the second week of August with a signed article. (‘People will not get away with fraud’, Sun, 12.8.2010)  The Sun now has a hotline number and a dedicated email address for readers to report benefit cheats...and the results are pretty scary with a litany of stories about ‘scroungers’ and ‘spongers’ living off benefits.  Neighbours are giving tip-offs, taking photographs; out-of-work couples with large families are being targeted.  The Sun says it is ‘waging a war’ on benefit cheats and has been ‘bombarded with calls and emails to name and shame fiddling scroungers’ (13.8.2010) The spin couldn’t be bettered: a campaign like this, in a newspaper with a circulation as large as the Sun’s, does feed through into wider news coverage about the justification for the imminent crackdown and tightening up on the rules for qualifying for jobseeker’s allowance or the disability living allowance.  Aligning himself with the Sun’s campaigns is a calculated part of David Cameron’s pr strategy.  Guess which party leader supported the Sun’s campaign to sack Sharon Shoesmith over the death of Baby P.  Yes, it was Cameron and his signed article appeared the day the Sun launched its petition – a petition that secured 1.4 million signatures and left Ed Balls with no alternative but to endorse Shoesmith’s dismissal. The link between Cameron and the campaigning journalism of the Sun and the News of the World is one I explored in Campaign 2010.  Andy Coulson was signed up as the Conservatives’ director of communications in the spring of 2007, four months after resigning as editor of the News of the World in the wake of the prison sentences imposed following the scandal over the tapping of the mobile phones of aides to the Royal family.  Once Coulson started to rehabilitate himself and work his way back in media circles, one of his first assignments was taking Cameron to the annual lunch of the Journalists Charity – at which Cameron declared his support for campaigning journalism. Don’t forget that Coulson’s greatest campaign was for Sarah’s Law – the News of the World’s long running and eventually successful campaign to allow parents access to information about known paedophiles.  No wonder Cameron has been closely associated with the Sun’s support for ‘Our Boys’ in Afghanistan and Iraq – the Tory leader knows just how to exploit the campaigning journalism of the Murdoch press.  Leaving aside questions about Cameron’s closeness to newspapers like the Sun, where the coalition does seem to have succeeded is in persuading two hitherto hostile teams of party propagandists to work together.  Among the political apparatchiks of Westminster and Whitehall, party spin doctors tend to be the most tribal and by welding together the rival spin teams of the Tories and the Lib Dems, Cameron and Clegg do seem to have broken the mould of political public relations. If the coalition fails to be even handed with the media and begins to exploit the traditional political affiliations of the press, journalists will immediately suspect trouble at the heart of the government.  If for example Andy Coulson’s team does favour the Murdoch press at the expense of other news outlets, or if the Liberal Democrats appear to be holding separate briefings for left of centre papers, one side of the coalition will have every reason to fear that the other is reverting to type. Once a hostile briefing war begins, Cameron and Clegg would soon find they were being threatened by instability from within.  Currently the factional briefing which is encouraging the increasingly acrimonious coverage of the contest between David and Ed Miliband is a reminder of the difficulty which any future Labour leader will have in trying to stem the flow of anonymous quotes that has bedevilled the party.Given all the ballyhoo surrounding the early and unexpected birth of the Camerons’ baby Florence Rose Endillion, I was half expecting that a newspaper like the Sun might be offered exclusive access. But Cameron restricted himself to one exclusive photo-opportunity for a Press Association photographer, so no favouritism there. Just like the political correspondents who are on split watch, I’m on coalition spin patrol – waiting to see if there are any of the tell-tale signs of the now apparently united pr team falling out and briefing against each other. I know it is real Anorak country but the media front line is where the politicians of today stand or fall.  Nicholas Jones debated: Is the coalition government the end of spin? with the blogger and broadcast Iain Dale. The debate was organised by the freelance and press and public relations branches of the National Union of Journallists (1.9.2010)