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Category: The Role of Spin Doctors

While Tony Blair will be always associated with the word "spin", just as John Major is remembered for "sleaze", the outgoing Prime Minister did, to his credit, ensure that his government transformed the way Whitehall responds to the ever-increasing demands of the twenty-four news media.

Indeed Blair, the consummate communicator, was ideal for the task and a spin doctor’s dream. Once the line had been agreed, he rarely if ever deviated from the message which he intended to deliver. And whatever the pressure, he rarely if ever put a foot wrong in front of camera.

There is no gallery of gaffes in the video and audio archives of television and radio stations. The worst the broadcasters could find for last week’s tributes was the sight and sound of an unnerved Prime Minister being interrupted by a slow handclap from the usually docile massed ranks of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes.

But Blair, like Margaret Thatcher before him, knew full well that behind the scenes his communications staff were deep into bullying and the black arts of media manipulation.

Again, to his credit, he always stood by them, however grave their misdemeanours. But although the burgeoning band of Labour’s political advisers finally forced the civil service information service to forsake its nine-to-five mentality, they ushered in a decade of squalid and politically corrupt spin which has besmirched the Blair years.

Alastair Campbell’s first act on entering Downing Street was to re-write the rule book for government information officers instructing them to "grab the agenda" by trailing new policies and decisions even before ministers had made their announcements in Parliament.

While there was no doubt that the government’s publicity machine developed a faster response rate and became more effective in dictating the news agenda, there was a downside to the Campbellisation of the flow of information from the state to the public.

Increasingly it was the political advisers who pulled the strings and politicised the work of civil service information officers. It was not a journalist, but Jo Moore, a Labour spin doctor, who told staff in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions that 9/11 was "a very good day to get out anything we want to bury".

Campbell’s unseen and unwritten responsibility was the control he exercised over the flow of confidential data to trusted media outlets; he became in effect an all-powerful information trader and like the rest of the political advisers under his command, he demanded his anonymity should be preserved.

While Campbell does deserve credit for putting transcripts of Downing Street’s lobby guidance on the No.10 website and for breaking the closed shop of political correspondents by allowing specialist and foreign journalists to attend the briefings, they are no longer used as a platform to explain and inform journalists. Instead these twice-daily gatherings have become little more than a Downing Street notice board and whenever probed too closely the official spokesmen slip into a defensive, "no comment" mode.

By instituting his own monthly televised news conferences, Blair by-passed the lobby and provided the media at large with an unparalleled opportunity to challenge the Prime Minister but his occasional high-profile outings are no substitute for what should be daily televised briefings, along the lines of those held at the White House, which would force the government to respond to the issue of the day.

The covert nature of Campbell’s ongoing dealings with journalists once he became Blair’s director of communications was revealed during cross-examination at the Hutton Inquiry when he was forced to acknowledge that he had continued to "talk to editors and senior journalists" about the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly despite the appointment of two official spokesmen whose duty it was to brief political correspondents.

James Dingemans QC did not demand the identity of this select clientele but the point was made: Campbell ran his own private operation to brief those newspaper correspondents whom he trusted and it was quite separate from the Downing Street briefings which served not just the papers but also broadcasters, news agencies and websites.

By avoiding official channels of communication and by encouraging his fellow political advisers and government press officers to continue briefing journalists selectively and usually on condition of anonymity, I believe Campbell, with Blair’s blessing, did political journalism a great disservice.

So great is the competition for exclusive stories that correspondents have become the eager beneficiaries of the government’s largesse in trailing decisions which should be announced first to parliament. Downing Street’s constant push to influence the news agenda for political advantage has resulted in many more un-sourced stories quoting un-named insiders, ministerial aides, colleagues, friends and so on.

No wonder political reporting is treated with such cynicism when there is a generation of political journalists who have acquired the freedom to embellish quotations and use them to help manufacture their own exclusive story lines.

Gordon Brown, who is signalling that he will turn his back on the spin culture of the Blair era, has an unparalleled opportunity to transform the way information is shared with both the media and the public. Government departments and public authorities can now communicate instantly not just with news media but also with pressure groups, bloggers and individual citizens.

All these disparate interests can have access to the same information at the same time via websites and email; what is lacking is any sign of a co-ordinated response from officialdom.

Ensuring equal access would bring immediate gains: all sections of the news media would be on an equal footing and so would campaigners and the like. By striving to reduce the deliberate and often authorised leaks and tip-offs which have become so common in Whitehall, there would be fewer hiding places either for the journalists who take advantage of the anonymity of their sources or those who seek to sabotage their colleagues’ exclusives with malicious or bogus stories.

A safeguard which could be introduced as part of any broadening of the flow of information would be a presumption that when briefing journalists civil service information officers and other officials should always speak on the record unless there are clear operational reasons or other exceptional circumstances.

My suspicion is that a change of Prime Minister or government will not necessarily make a great deal of difference. Gordon Brown or David Cameron will be as determined as Blair was to spin their way to victory and then hold on to power.

Thanks to the increasing dominance of the internet and the enthusiasm with which the traditional news media have embraced interaction with readers, viewers and listeners, there is now an ideal opportunity to match the pioneering work of Clem Attlee in promoting what he always hoped would be the people’s "conscious and active participation in public affairs". But where oh where is the vision of the post-war Labour government.

 

(First published by The Guardian media page, 14.5.2006).