When politicians spun out of control

The Wages of Spin - The Death of Spin
June 20, 2003

As the titles imply, these two books are like two paintings of much the same landscape. But while Sir Bernard Ingham's brushwork is painstaking and incisive, George Pitcher's is lamentably slapdash. The authors' careers have been remarkably similar. Both are poachers turned gamekeepers: journalists who crossed into public relations - though it is doubtful whether Ingham would have described himself as a PR man in his days as chief of the Government Information Service. Though they were not contemporaries, as journalists their careers somewhat overlapped. Ingham specialised in labour relations, Pitcher was an industrial editor. Both were committed leftwingers when young, both are now profoundly leery of new Labour.

But here their similarities, at least as authors, end. Both books explore the relationships between governments and the media. But while Ingham approaches the subject from a serious historical perspective, Pitcher merely skims over the surface. Ingham grapples with the complexities, Pitcher deals in racy tittle-tattle.

Most of the first half of The Wages deals with the 300 years of war between those in power and the press, from the Star Chamber in 1637 to the middle of the 20th century. Newspapers won their freedom to report on Parliament in the face of almost continuous opposition. The book traces, in exacting and often amusing detail, each cut and thrust of the battle. Until the early 19th century, conditions in the House of Commons press gallery were so noxious that few good reporters were willing to work there, and when Parliament was rebuilt in the middle of the 19th century the acoustics were so bad that reporters were unable to hear what was being said, which was fine with the MPs.

Politicians would love the media to be obeisant and communicate their messages uncritically, but in democracies the media are often disagreeably stroppy. So it is generally best to keep them in the dark, feeding them only the information you want them to disseminate, in the way you want it disseminated. Despite three centuries of progress, this is what still happens. Ingham analyses the etymology of the neologism spin doctor with precision: "spin" as in spinning a yarn (that is, fabricating), and "doctor" as in the verb "to doctor" (to tamper with or falsify).

In contrast, Pitcher seeks to justify his title by claiming that "spin" was born when he left journalism in 1991, and died when he made an after-dinner speech saying it had died, in July 2000. He then contradicts himself by pointing out that spin has always been part of the political process. And while Ingham has left his journalism far behind him, Pitcher's book is journalism incarnate. Pitcher skips helter-skelter through myriad themes, throwing up a few interesting facts and ideas en route, relying on hearsay when he needs to delve deep for the facts. For example, he traces the history of the Thatcher privatisations with no apparent understanding of their commercial and economic relevance, nor of their long-term impact.

Instead, he gossips about the political skirmishes that occurred within the Thatcher government. It is shallow stuff.

The second half of The Wages covers much the same period as The Death , but Ingham is hardly concerned with gossip. Instead he has two fixations. The first is to show that under his aegis everyone at the GIS behaved like trusty, apolitical civil servants. He grumbles that he has been wrongly blamed for having started the rot that has led, under new Labour, to the wholesale politicisation of government communications. Not guilty, he protests - too much and too often. This whining self-defence is the weakest and most tedious aspect of the book.

However, when he analyses new Labour's extraordinary mania for media control, Ingham is on far firmer, and more fertile, ground. This is his second fixation. He shows that from the moment of Blair's first rallying cry "The media, the media and the media" in May 1994, new Labour has incessantly threatened, cajoled and massaged the media with freakish determination. Even now, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, when we might be expecting the prime minister to rest on his laurels, he is still punting exclusives to his media chums. It is hard to think of any other prime minister who has been as utterly obsessed with news management. And the outcome, as Ingham makes clear, has been to blur the differences between political fact and political fiction to a frightening degree.

Both Ingham and Pitcher argue that the first new Labour administration had no real political policies, still less socialist policies. It had lots of worthy aims and slogans but had no concrete plans for their achievement.

And new Labour's decision to continue the Tories' economic policies precluded it from adopting radical policies of its own. Liberating interest rates was not a political policy. Nobody ever marched through the streets chanting "Free the bank rate!" Lacking substantial policies, new Labour inevitably focused not on political reality but on political communication: spin. It is reminiscent of the old office maxim about looking busy: if you've nothing to do, stride about with a clipboard. New Labour believed they were spin masters (remember all that nonsense about the red rose?).

They believed spin had got them into office (despite lots of psephological evidence to the contrary).

Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, Blair's closest political confidants, are media men to their fingertips. All they truly care about is communication. Ergo the media became the message. In 1997 Blair's only definitive reformist policy was to clean out Tory sleaze. Maybe this was because new Labour lacked experience of how to govern but felt confident about how to handle the media, and sleaze was first and foremost a media phenomenon. Spin as a surrogate for substance: it is a depressing thesis.

But between them Ingham and Pitcher make it stick.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, the Royal Institution.

The Wages of Spin: A Clear Case of Communications Gone Wrong

Author - Bernard Ingham
ISBN - 0 7195 6481 6
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £18.99
Pages - 261

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