Tall tales, dark deeds and one worn green

Great Parliamentary Speeches - Party, Parliament and Personality - Taxation and Representation - Designer Politics - Soundbites and Spin Doctors - Political Marketing and Communication
August 4, 1995

John Major's decision to challenge his opponents within his own party to "put up or shut up" electrified the village of Westminster and led to a two-week binge of political reporting and analysis, perhaps on a scale unprecedented outside of a general election. During that fortnight the patch of grass across the road from Parliament, which became known as College Green (but in fact to the pedant is Abingdon Green) became transformed into a virtual medieval pageant as the electronic crowds gathered to pass judgement on the candidates being set before them. It was great fun for all concerned and the sight of MPs literally queuing up for the next free microphone or camera reminded some of the story of the BBC producer who, in the early days of broadcasting, after booking an MP to appear said ". . . there'll be a fee of course." To which the grateful MP replied: "Ah yes, and to whom do I make the cheque payable?"

No money was passing hands this summer but it must have caused those who have been pondering the question as to whom, between the politicians and the media, now holds the balance of power, to have concluded that balance had tilted decisively in favour of the media. But equally, those who observed the ease with which the prime minister's supporters were able so quickly to convince the broadcasters that, despite losing the support of one third of his MPs, John Major had won a stunning victory, represented the ultimate triumph of spin over reality. Political journalists are now more intensely aware than ever of the degree to which the army of media advisers now employed by the parties try, often with a good deal of success, to establish the news priorities of the political day. At the same time, MPs believe that they are increasingly having to respond to an agenda which bears little relationship to their notion of reality (usually encapsulated by the phrase "people out there") but which has been, in their view, dreamed up in the offices of the Today programme or Newsnight. And some senior members of the BBC itself, including director general John Birt, have lent weight to the politicians' claims by arguing that the degree to which the media, or at least radio and television, are able to determine the political news agenda, represents a potential threat to democracy.

BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones in Soundbites and Spin Doctors is also fearful for the future of democracy but not for the same reasons as his director general. Jones's fears are based on what he sees as the remorseless decline in journalistic standards which he has observed over the past decade, which he attributes to the harsh competitive intensity of the current media environment, combined with the continuing growth in the concentration of media ownership and cross-ownership. He is also fearful of the activities of the spin doctors and paramedics -camped as they are between the great armies of the media and the politicians. The spin doctors like to characterise their role as promoting "communication" between the two sides but for Jones they simply make the job of the conscientious political reporter that much more difficult. His book is first and foremost a report from the battle-front, a highly readable account of life at the Westminster sharp end by someone who prides himself on being an old-fashioned "hack", one not easily put off the scent of a story once his nostrils have begun twitching. Not for Jones the clubby informality of drinks on the House of Commons terrace or the discreet dinner with a member of the Cabinet - his style is more old-style "door-stepping" and an irresistible urge to pick at the scab of whatever particular wound the politician, regardless of party, is hoping will soon heal.

Jones's book, like his previous one about the 1992 general election, is very much an insider's view of the proceedings. He discusses, at length, the techniques of soundbites, photo opportunities, putting a spin on stories and all the other mechanisms which politicians and their advisers use in the attempt to best present their message. In writing this book Jones has to some extent blown the gaffe both on the spin doctors and the recipients of that spin and in so doing will no doubt have put a few noses out of joint, not least those of Margaret Thatcher's spokesman Bernard Ingham and his Labour opposite numbers, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. Jones implies that the success of a spin doctor appears to be in inverse proportion to their humanity - bullying, ridicule and rudeness being the essential tools of their trade.

As a working political journalist, and as an author writing about Westminster, Jones gives a central role to spin doctor as does Margaret Scammell in Designer Politics, a more scholarly but none the less enjoyable account of the development of political marketing in this country - probably the most comprehensive analysis of the subject yet to appear. It is particularly strong on how the Conservatives, very early on, developed a keen sense of the importance of communication and marketing techniques. In the 1920s, for example, prime minister Stanley Baldwin felt sufficiently aware of the need to tailor his radio addresses to the people sitting at home listening to ask the BBC for information about the likely social make-up of his audience, and he was more than happy to allow director general John Reith to "polish up" his scripts just before broadcast. And 60 years later, Scammell tells us, the Conservatives were still looking to learn about new technologies - this time using computers to develop the effectiveness of direct mail campaigning.

Scammell's account is particularly comprehensive in two areas - the role of Mrs Thatcher's press secretary Bernard Ingham in promoting the interests of his boss, perhaps above and beyond the call of duty (and precedent), and the staggering growth, particularly over the past decade, in the use of government advertising as covert party political propaganda. She notes that by the time Mrs Thatcher left office the Government was second only to Unilever in terms of the amount of money spent on advertising.

However, strong as Scammell is on the Tories, she is correspondingly weak on the opposition parties. For example, Labour's 1959 election broadcasts were ground-breaking, taking the style and format of BBC's successful early evening current affairs programme Tonight as its model. And the work of Peter Mandelson and the Shadow Communications Agency, which over the past decade have transformed not just Labour's presentation but its substance as well do not receive the consideration they merit. Similarly neglected are some of the pioneering communication techniques of the SDP (as displayed at their launch, for example) and the local campaigning, known as "pavement politics" developed by the old Liberal Party and their Focus teams. On the other hand it could be argued that Scammell's emphasis on the Tories is justified - Labour's innovations did not lead to the election of Labour governments, the Liberal Democrats remain as far from power as ever and the SDP is dead. On the other hand the activities of Bernard Ingham and the increase in Government advertising in the 1980s clearly did nothing to inhibit the string of election victories which have kept the Conservatives in power since 1979.

All of which raises the key question: does political marketing work, and if it does, is it, in an ethical sense, right? Scammell's answers to these questions are unambiguous. "There is no doubt," she writes, "that political marketing and its associated techniques have been put to disreputable purposes in the past and certainly will be again. However, just as in commercial advertising the easiest product to advertise is the best product, so in politics the most effective way to create an image of competence, credibility and unity is by actually being competent, united and believable." Evidence provided by David Deacon and Peter Golding's study of the poll tax fiasco seems to provide support for these conclusions - for they demonstrate how the very best (and most expensive) political marketing can do nothing to sell a policy that is perceived as innately unfair. This work is an important contribution to the debate about the role of marketing within the political process and it is set within the context of the wider academic discourses around issues such as "news values", "agenda-setting" (or building) and the strategic role played by journalists' sources in determining news agendas. It is a particularly useful contribution because its theoretical discussions pivot around a specific series of events which are used as touchstones to validate the authors' arguments. In terms of the debate around agenda-setting - which out of the media and the politicians is able to dictate news priorities - Deacon and Golding reject crude reductionism by not opting for one side or the other and instead sketching out a far more complex process in which journalists, politicians and other sources are in constant dynamic interaction reacting to and in turn affecting the actions of others. But their conclusion is, that in the final analysis the power to define an issue rests primarily with politicians (and their media advisers) in general and with government in particular, and that this remains the key determinant of what gets on to and what gets missed off the media agenda.

This ability to define issues for the public agenda is undoubtedly a vital weapon in the armoury of government but to understand an episode such as the poll tax requires a wider perspective. At its heart was the personality of the prime minister of the day - Margaret Thatcher - and her blind determination to introduce the tax, almost irrespective of the consequences. This interaction between personality and politics has formed a keystone in the work of Hugh Berrington, the distinguished professor of politics at Newcastle, to whom Peter Jones has dedicated a collection of essays, Party, Parliament and Personality. In an earlier work, quoted in this collection, Berrington himself observes, "It would be absurd to argue that political decisions can ONLY be explained by reference to the psychology of decision-makers. It would be no less foolish to assert that the temperament of leaders never makes a significant difference to what happens." Thatcher is an obvious case in point but perhaps of almost equal interest is her prince of media darkness Bernard Ingham, who served as her Downing Street spokesman throughout the 1980s. Ingham is a complex character with an almost breath-taking arrogance in public combined with a gentle humility in private. His own role in Downing Street has been the subject of much controversy. Both Nicholas Jones's and Scammell's account of his activities raises important questions about where the boundaries between presentational and political advice fall. Ingham seeks to address some of these questions in his contribution to Peter Jones's collection which, with no suggestion of irony, he has called "The awkward art of reconciliation", claiming that his job was reconciling the conflicting interests of politicians and the media.

"Reconciliation" is not the first word that springs to mind when reflecting on Ingham's Downing Street career. He was a rough, tough practitioner of the art of spinning and his defence of his time at Number 10 makes for fascinating reading. Yet it does not square with reports of his activities that are given, either painfully at first hand by Nicholas Jones, or more dispassionately by Scammell. Jones gives several graphic accounts of how Ingham sought to deflect him from legitimate areas of inquiry by ridiculing him in front of his colleagues. Scammell has highlighted the fact that by becoming both the official voice of the prime minister and head of the Government Information Service, Ingham, unelected, gathered to himself as much power as the newly elected deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine has now achieved through another, rather more democratic, route. It is a pity that Ingham does not recognise that while he did a first-class job in promoting Thatcher his activities were as deeply political as any member of the Government. He innocently concludes his chapter by observing that when he departed, although he left political correspondents for the most part frustrated, Cabinet ministers " . . . at least, did not wish to kill the messenger". Given his track record, this is hardly surprising.

Phillipe Maarek, a distinguished French political scientist who obviously knows his way around Washington, provides a very different perspective. His is a straightforward and comprehensive guide to the range of skills that the well-qualified spin doctor should be familiar with - including direct marketing, television and radio presentation skills and the use of information technology; it almost reads like the set text for some University of Central Westminster's soon-to-be-launched B.Spin. But despite Maarek's breadth of knowledge, his book's lack of a British perspective inevitably narrows its appeal to a UK readership, as do the occasional translation accidents - "rotten boroughs" become "decrepit" (which probably describes many of their MPs) and a new connotation is given to the television term "ghosting", when Maarek advises politicians that they cannot "exorcise complete control" over their vocal attributes: more knowledge of the UK experience would have suggested that that was precisely what Mrs Thatcher, under the tutelage of Gordon Reece, did in fact achieve. But Maarek's book is of some value. It is a thorough and useful account of this growing area and contains a thoughtful conclusion, akin to Jones and Scammell, warning of the dangers to democracy that can result from an over-reliance on marketing techniques at the expense of fundamental political values.

But when the spinning has spun itself out and the politicians, by fair means or foul, have got themselves elected - what then? The collection of extracts from speeches, culled from the Commons' archives by the BBC's former parliamentary correspondent, Peter Hill, is a joy for political addicts. There are of course the great moments - Geoffrey Howe knifing Margaret Thatcher in the front or the moving tributes to John Smith by John Major and Margaret Beckett. But my own favourite is a recording of Michael Foot at the height of his parliamentary powers in 1978. He was taunting David Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party, who was about to go into a temporary alliance with Thatcher in an effort to defeat the Labour Government. Foot lays into Steel, very gently but with the just the occasional flash of the switch-blade. At the conclusion of his speech, to the obvious delight of all sides he describes Steel as having ". . . moved from boy-wonder to elder statesman with no intervening period."

Foot as leader of the Labour Party might have been a spin-doctor's nightmare, but no practitioner of that craft could have come up with that line, at least not without several days to think about it. All of which underlines the argument that, while it would be foolish to deny the importance of political marketing, the quality of the politician and the salience of his or her message remain more important still.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Great Parliamentary Speeches

Editor - Peter Hill
Publisher - EMI Records
Price - CD £14.99, Tape £10.99, LP £12.50

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