Nicholas Jones paper presented to Spinwatch Conference, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. 7.9.2007
If ever a serial offender was on probation it has to be the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He promised so much in preparing for office. He gave repeated undertakings that the Labour government which he led would end its reliance on spin and turn away from the dark arts of manipulating the news media. Yet, almost three months into his Premiership, Brown has still to show any real sign of delivering on a badly-needed programme of reform to restore public trust in what the government says; to reinforce the independence of the civil service; and to help Parliament rebuild its authority.
What happened was that events took over, the focus kept changing, drawing attention away from the abuses which need correcting. Within two days of entering Downing Street, a succession of potential disasters -- a failed terrorist attack, unprecedented summer floods and then an outbreak of foot and mouth disease -- gave the new Prime Minister an opportunity to project himself in a way which no-one had quite predicted. An arch control freak and manipulator was able, quite literally, to reinvent himself. Almost effortlessly, over the space of a few days, he assumed a commanding position and immediately began to dominate the political agenda, giving the impression that he had succeeded in discarding the political baggage of the past.
In an age of almost limitless news coverage, no Prime Minister needs a spin doctor when unexpected events speak for themselves, not least when the political leader in question is adept at meeting the news media’s deadlines and has an innate understanding of how to influence and help shape the day’s headlines. From the start there was no doubting who was in control and this assisted Brown in the presentation of numerous initiatives aimed at providing a fresh face for his administration. His use of the news media, helped as it was by the scale of the unexpected challenges which the government faced, was masterful when compared with the disarray in the main opposition party and the collapse in the previous opinion poll lead held by the Conservative leader, David Cameron.
Having done so much to instigate and sustain the clamour for a change of Prime Minister, the news media were almost duty bound to give Brown an extended honeymoon after Tony Blair’s departure, a scenario which in many ways has mirrored the period when the last Conservative Prime Minister John Major took over from an increasingly unpopular Margaret Thatcher. Nonetheless when it comes to the all-important question of implementing the many pledges which he gave, there is precious little evidence so far of the substantive changes which were promised. And, from what I can deduce, Brown and his closest aides are continuing to collude with media proprietors and executives; those behind-the-scenes liaisons, which can be so corrosive of political trust, seem as strong as in the Blair years.
Likewise there has been no meaningful reduction in the covert influence being exercised by the special advisers who act as ministerial spin doctors; nor has there been any evidence of a halt, let alone reversal, in the creeping politicisation of the civil service. Admittedly Brown has been able to enjoy a prolonged political bounce without having to resort to the worst of the media strategies which so discredited the Blair years, but that does not mean that the new Prime Minister deserves a clean bill of health. What makes his failure to act so potentially disturbing is that Brown has faced no real challenge to his authority. With Parliament in the long summer recess and much of the press coverage largely supportive he has not been forced on to the defensive or tempted to slip back into old habits.
What must not be forgotten is that a culture of spin was deeply ingrained in the very fabric of New Labour and that from his earliest days as an opposition MP, Brown was always an avid student of media manipulation. For example, as an up-and-coming frontbencher in the late 1980s, he quickly established himself as a forthright Parliamentary performer, able to attack the government of the day where it hurt. He was assiduous in courting journalists, ever anxious to satisfy their demands for exclusive stories and access. He understood the kind of stories which the media craved for and he soon became a highly-effective conduit for leaked information which he distributed to political correspondents with pin-point precision in order to embarrass ministers and damage the Conservative Party.
Such was his skill in exploiting any ammunition which was slipped to him by disenchanted civil servants, that he attracted a constant flow of confidential documents throughout the Thatcher and Major administrations. When Labour won the 1997 general election, he transferred to the Treasury his well-honed techniques for feeding journalists’ appetite for leaks and in my estimation, after nine years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown remained his party’s most prolific and longest serving trader in confidential data. Brown’s great skill, both in opposition and in government, has been an ability to keep himself at arms length from the circulation of leaked information.
For example, shortly before the 1997 general election, Brown’s aides and Labour Party publicists took great delight in briefing journalists on the contents of a leaked copy of Kenneth Clarke’s final Budget for the Conservatives. However, when challenged on the Today programme, he denounced those responsible and said "nobody can condone the leak of sensitive Budget matters". Brown was similarly upstanding when he got caught up in the 1999 scandal over the way Labour Mps were found to have leaked to ministers copies of unpublished House of Commons select committee reports. Don Touhig, the Chancellor’s parliamentary private secretary, resigned after it was discovered he had accepted a leaked report on child benefit just before Brown delivered Labour’s 1999 Budget.
On finding himself embroiled in what was seen as a government-inspired attempt to undermine the independence of select committees, Brown insisted that neither he nor any other Treasury minister had actually been given or read the leaked document. Notwithstanding his embarrassment, once installed in the Treasury, Brown succeeded in turning into an art form the task of trailing -- or should I say spinning -- his own announcements. But in his determination to manipulate the flow of information from the Treasury, and by eroding the long-standing tradition of keeping secret even the most insignificant monetary changes -- known as pre-Budget purdah -- Brown reinforced the government’s reputation for being more concerned with spin than substance.
On the numerous occasions he made financial statements to the House of Commons, there were often hardly any surprises left as most of the decisions had been pre-announced through leaks to favoured journalists. Therefore, when in the run-up to Blair’s departure, Brown gave a promise that in future, under his Premiership, cabinet decisions would be announced first to Parliament, it signalled what looked like a real change of heart; perhaps a previous sinner was repenting after all.
His undertaking to do whatever he could to restore the authority of the House of Commons was widely welcomed and was greeted with the warmest applause at Labour’s special conference in June when the party’s new deputy leader Harriet Harman gave her support to the new style of politics which Brown had proclaimed. Putting less emphasis on presentation was considered to be an essential first step because at the root of the loss of trust in Blair’s administration was an over dependence on spin and what increasingly the public judged was the false presentation of government information, whether it was the misleading dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the every-day publication of what were subsequently seen to have been questionable official statistics.
To his great credit, in his first few days in 10 Downing Street, Brown went some way to honour his commitment to make announcements to Parliament rather than leak them beforehand. Some of the key changes in his opening cabinet reshuffle were not spun in advance. His appointment of Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary, the first woman to hold the post, was a genuine surprise. And the same went for his statement on constitutional reform: a possible reduction in the voting age to sixteen and the option of holding general elections over a weekend instead of on Thursdays had not been trailed ahead of the statement.
Not surprisingly, once he began seeing a rise in his personal popularity ratings and a marked improvement in Labour’s standing in the opinion polls, Brown could not resist exploiting a sympathetic news media to push home his party’s advantage against the Conservatives. It was at this point we saw the re-emergence of the Gordon Brown of old, the control freak who over the years had become addicted to the practice of managing his media image through the offer of exclusive access and interviews.
We did not have long to wait: Brown the action man co-ordinating help for the flood victims in Gloucestershire was the theme of a report by the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson who was billed by the Ten O’Clock News (24.7.2007) as having been given "exclusive access to the Prime Minister". Here was the BBC doing all it could to repair the damage caused earlier in the month when the Treasury complained that a Newsnight report about the then Chancellor’s campaign to become Labour leader had been "unfair, unbalanced, unnecessarily personal and disingenuous". The day after the BBC’s "exclusive" it emerged the Sun had been given the same preferential treatment gaining the "first newspaper interview" with Britain’s new "workaholic" Premier.
Keeping the Sun onside, supporting the Labour Party, has continued to be one of Brown’s top priorities and a subsequent pronouncement by Les Hinton, executive chairman of News International -- and Rupert Murdoch’s right hand man in London -- explained why it would be to the new Prime Minister’s advantage to go on supplying exclusives to Britain’s biggest selling newspaper. Hinton was effusive in his praise: "I think the next year will show Brown has been underestimated and my guess is he will turn out to be formidable". The Sun (25.7.2007) had been given not one but two exclusives: on the front page, a pledge that the new Prime Minister would "kick out 4,000" foreign convicts and on the inside the news that government planned to hold suspected terrorists for 56 days.
Brown understands the psychology of journalists and uses leaks and exclusives as a way of trying to discipline the media. If he can get political correspondents into the mindset that they too might get an offer of preferential treatment, that they too might be in line for similar favours, there is every chance they might be less hostile and prepared to go along with the spin which the government if offering. Again, to be fair to Brown, examples of collusion do seem to have been the exception rather than the rule because the tumultuous events of the summer have provided the backdrop for what came to resemble the delivery of reverse spin by the Prime Minister. However adverse the circumstances, a failed terror attack, floods and foot and mouth, Brown took them in his stride. His hands-on-approach to the threatening nature of the crises which the government has had to tackle suited his sombre, matter-of-fact appearances on television and radio.
No spinning was needed when journalists were told within hours of his arrival in Dorset that he was abandoning his family’s summer holiday and returning to London to deal with the foot and mouth outbreak; every day there was news of him chairing another session of the government’s emergency committee. Brown was there on camera yet again, resolute in the wake of the murder in mid August of the 11-year-old Liverpool schoolboy Rhys Jones. The Prime Minister promised those responsible would be tracked down and punished for a "heinous crime that shocked the whole country".
A soundbite yes, but there was nothing false about it and somehow the word "heinous" had so much force and meaning when delivered in the grave manner which Brown tends to adopt during formal news conferences and interviews. That stern almost severe stance gave added weight to his first public rebuke to the trade union movement. In his outright rejection of any softening of the current staging of public sector pay deals, he made it clear he would brook no opposition in enforcing wage discipline: "We will do nothing, nothing, to put that at risk".
Gathering political storms, not just on pay but also in the wider international economy and the growing demands for a British referendum on the latest European treaty, underline the scale of the challenge Brown will face when he tries to communicate government policy in an increasingly hostile environment. To a large extent his media strategy looked after itself during the summer; more often than not he came across as a highly proficient one-man band, able turn to his advantage what initially looked liked being calamitous events. But with the autumn chill there will come hard political decisions over the contents of the first Queen’s Speech of a Brown government, the October spending review and his first EU summit in Lisbon.
Unless the Prime Minister goes for broke and creates a political sensation by calling a snap autumn general election -- after just four months in office -- there is every likelihood he will be forced increasingly on to the back foot, facing a far more searching media spotlight that will perhaps tempt him to call in all those favours he hopes will be returned by sympathetic editors and media proprietors. At that point we will see whether the much trumpeted promises which Brown made stand any chance of being delivered. The omens are not promising in view of his continued failure to establish procedures which would guarantee a more open approach and less political interference in the flow of information from state to public.
The fickle nature of the British news media and the ability of the press to manufacture news stories and sensationalise the political agenda tested to the limit the patience of Tony Blair; certainly that was he argued in his outgoing critique on the broken relationship between public life and the media. While Blair was honest enough to admit his own complicity and that his administration "paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging and persuading the media", his soul searching was woefully inadequate. In his defence of the need for a "proper press operation" he failed to own up to the way Alastair Campbell had abused the government’s information service and adopted techniques which had helped to accelerate rather than check declining journalistic standards.
In castigating the British news media for "hunting in a pack…like a feral beast" Blair missed the point. It was his government which failed to take advantage of the growing dominance of the internet to provide all journalists with the same information at the same time. Ensuring equal access by email and websites would bring immediate gains: all sections of the news media would be on an equal footing and so would pressure groups, campaigners, bloggers and so on. No wonder political journalism became a jungle when Downing Street’s policy was one of divide and rule through the leaking of government decision to favoured journalists.
It was not just political correspondents, as Blair argued, but also Campbell and the Whitehall information service which were equally addicted to trying to "break stories to lead the schedules". Brown has the opportunity, if he cares to seize it, to make a clean break with the discredited media regime of the Blair years. He could begin the process at a stroke by allowing his newly-appointed official spokesman Michael Ellam to be identified by name, finally ending the absurdity of journalists attributing No. 10’s reaction to a nameless official spokesman. Instead of allowing himself to be dogged by the spin and subterfuge of the Campbell years, Ellam could lead from the front.
Once clear about his own identity the official spokesman would have greater authority to make sure that important news was announced first at lobby briefings or on the Downing Street website, rather than through off-the-record conversations which only feed the competitive pressures which Blair concluded were forcing the media pack to hunt "like a feral beast" in the environs of Westminster and Whitehall. Delivering the greater openness which Brown has promised can only be achieved by having a press secretary who can speak openly and authoritatively and who can be held publicly to account.
Unless the Prime Minister is ready to make a fresh start he stands little chance of controlling the political advisers and the rest of the unidentified insiders who were given free rein under Blair and whose anonymous quotes have been like a cancer, eating away at the government’s credibility. Trying to deny un-sourced stories is no easy task in the competitive media environment of today and if there was equal access to government information there would be fewer hiding places for those journalists who, either from choice or under the weight of competitive pressures, are tempted to make it up.
While in the past Brown was as guilty as Blair of allowing his aides to brief selectively and un-attributably about the content of ministerial statements, there is now a far wider understanding of the damage which this practice has inflicted on Parliamentary accountability. Advance trailing of announcements -- or in other words state-approved leaking -- became so institutionalised within government departments under the Blair regime that it will require a root and branch revision of the ministerial and civil service codes going far beyond anything which Brown has so far proposed.
Similarly if his pledge to put the independence of the civil service on a statutory basis is to have real teeth, there would have to be a raft of new safeguards to prevent the continued manipulation of the flow of government information. Much was made by Brown on entering No.10 of his withdrawal of the 1997 order in council which gave two of Blair’s key political aides, Campbell and Jonathan Powell, the unprecedented power to give instructions to civil servants. This change had been well flagged up in advance and was acknowledged by many Blairites as having been a mistake, so returning to the status quo and making it legally binding was hardly a great surprise.
What is needed is clear statutory guidance from the new Prime Minister that special advisers must not undermine Parliamentary authority by leaking sensitive decisions before they are officially announced. Judging by the flurry of government-inspired exclusives obtained in recent weeks by Rupert Murdoch’s two leading newspapers, the Sun and the News of the World, Brown and his aides have no intention of limiting their ability to tip off News International’s journalists in order to float stories to the government’s advantage.
Amid the clamour for action following the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, it was the News of the World which led the pack with its exclusive that the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith had backed the paper’s "Shop a Shooter" campaign by revealing plans for an amnesty for hidden weapons which could be handed in at drop-off zones. Brown has become as attentive as Blair in acknowledging -- and often meeting -- the demands of the Murdoch press, a relationship which, not surprisingly, failed to rate even a mention in the former Prime Minister’s attack on the ills of modern journalism. In attempting to treat these covert contacts as a no-go area when it comes to public scrutiny, Blair only underlined why his call for an ethical debate on media standards lacked any credibility.
If any further proof were needed of the political significance of the close links between newspaper proprietors and the government of the day it was the forced disclosure -- under the Freedom of Information Act -- that Blair had three telephone conversations with Murdoch in March 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq War. After spending four years blocking the release of the details the government finally backed down the day after Blair resigned and revealed that he had taken part in a total of six telephone discussions with Murdoch over a twenty month period, all at crucial moments in his Premiership.
The three calls before the start of the American-led attack on Iraq took place within the space of nine days at a time when the Sun was unstinting in its support of Bush and Blair, praising the "courage and resilience" of the British Prime Minister. (Sun 20.3.2003). Murdoch remains an ardent support of the Anglo-American alliance and given the determination of Brown and his advisers to retain the support of the Sun and the News of the World there seems every likelihood that there might be similar telephone conversations over the coming weeks as the Prime Minister prepares for his announcement on the future deployment of British troops in Basra.
A statement has been promised for early October, after Parliament returns from the summer recess, and on past form it will be the Murdoch press which no doubt gets the first hint of what the government has decided on the timing of the withdrawal of British troops. Brown’s promise of greater openness will be tested as never before and again, given the closeness of this continuing relationship, it is highly likely that it will take another application under the Freedom of Information Act to determine whether Brown and Murdoch were in contact over what will undoubtedly be the most critical decision so far of the Brown government.