The original spin-doctor

January 15, 1999

Press chief turned academic Sir Bernard Ingham alerts Phil Baty to the spectre of Stalin in the government's publicity machine

One day, the government will thank the soon-to-be-ex Treasury spin-doctor Charlie Whelan, predicts Sir Bernard Ingham, former Downing Street press chief.

Yes, Whelan's wheelings and dealings with the media, as chief aide to chancellor Gordon Brown, may have caused the government acute embarrassment by prising open personal wounds between the chancellor and prime minister Tony Blair. And yes, Whelan's unique approach to the blacker arts of media manipulation may well have helped secure the scalp of Blairite-in-chief Peter Mandelson, who resigned as trade secretary before Christmas when the two-year secret of his home loan emerged in the press.

But Mr Whelan, Sir Bernard believes, has cleared the way for a deep-rooted change in the way British governments communicate with the public. "I think it is interesting that I counted seven cabinet ministers that were calling for Charlie Whelan's blood," he says. Fundamental reform of the government's communications machine will come with the realisation of what works and what does not. Mr Whelan, he says, has performed a service by demonstrating what does not work.

In June last year Sir Bernard, spin-doctor to Margaret Thatcher for 11 years, warned that the government was spinning out of control in its obsession with media manipulation. "And I was right, wasn't I," he snorts, peering through the wild red eyebrows that have become his trademark.

A review of the dark corners of lobby communications is long overdue, says Sir Bernard, who tried, but failed, to initiate one during his tenure at Number 10.

Now he is trying to do something similar from academia, through his role as a visiting professor in government communication at Middlesex University business school.

The pioneering postgraduate pilot course in political marketing will be launched at Middlesex next month. The university's publicists say that it will herald a political communications revolution, ushering in a new breed of qualified spin-doctor, working within a clearer, self-regulating framework, no longer occupying the grey area between cunning manipulation and straightforward impropriety.

Sir Bernard shares their enthusiasm. It was his communications vision that brought him to Middlesex in the first place, to help business school dean David Kirby convince British businessmen not to run away from the media. He believes business graduates have a duty to the public to make themselves accountable. The political marketing course takes his passion to a more personal level.

Offered initially to a handful of students from Middlesex's existing marketing management MBA and MA programmes and, as a diploma course, to others already in the PR business, it will include programmes on electoral campaigning, lobbying, polling and fundraising, as well as Sir Bernard's government communications section. And it could not have come at a better time, he says.

"One important point about this course is that we are talking about organisation and order - a framework within which you do things. There is nothing new. It is the way in which the whole organisation and theoretical framework of the Whitehall media machine is being developed that is interesting and which can make the (communications) system more rather than less of a scientific process."

The craft as practised by Charlie Whelan will play a major part in the curriculum. "When I do my lectures," Sir Bernard says, "I will not be able to put a stake in the ground and say this is where we brief up to. I'll have to relate the regime, rules and conventions that I knew to the way things have developed."

And how have they developed now, under new Labour? Uncomfortably, Sir Bernard suggests. For example, Whelan, he says, made the big mistake of short-termism, sacrificing the "long-term game" for "short-term hits". By cultivating favourite journalists and selectively leaking to friendly newspapers, he would often grab the headlines for Gordon Brown. But he was alienating other journalists who were happy to oblige other entrenched camps in the divided cabinet.

Whelan, says Sir Bernard, was also operating on a freelance basis.

"Governments have a corporate existence, a corporate responsibility and a corporate identity," he says. "Charlie Whelan was operating in the interests of an individual in that organisation and that always spells trouble. "That points to the difference between the professional communicator and the amateur, as I would describe Charlie Whelan; or the difference between the civil servant and the party apparatchik who is brought in to do a party political job and frequently a personal job. The professional communicator knows that he is in the business as a career, so he has to preserve his credibility and his authority. And the one sure damn way he is not going to preserve that credibility is if he has demonstrable favourites in the dissemination of information. You can't do it. You do not survive. And Charlie Whelan has not survived. It is a very severe warning to others."

But the lobby journalists are partly to blame for the worst excesses of political spin-doctors, Sir Bernard says. While commentators lament the growth of journalists' navel-gazing obsession with stories about the news managers, he accuses the media of complicity in their activities. "Let me be brutal," he says. "I wish the press was more obsessed with the spin-doctors' arts. An interesting development from the 1980s and the 1990s is the lack of obsession with who said what to whom."

Sir Bernard is notorious for briefing against Mrs Thatcher's ministers, "mona lot" Francis Pym and "semi-detached" John Biffen. Both, he says, had lost Mrs Thatcher's confidence and were on their way out.

"I am saddled with a reputation for rubbishing ministers for just two quotes," he complains. "I was not trying to put the boot in, I was trying to explain their extraordinary behaviour. But the media were then obsessed with quotation - who said what about whom? And of course, if there was anything said that was remotely interesting we were always transparent."

Not any more.

"Let us contrast that with the way in which the media have behaved in the first 20 months of this government. We still don't know who described the chancellor as being 'psychologically flawed', we have no idea - officially - as to who rubbished Peter Mandelson in the most vicious way over Post Office privatisation. And we have no idea - officially - of the activities of Peter Mandelson in rubbishing minister after minister. I would describe the British press's performance over the past 20 months as poodle-like," he snorts.

Another development that Sir Bernard deeply laments is interference with the traditional role of the Government Information Service, the civil service based communications machine, in which civil service rules should ensure that party politics comes second to the imparting of clear and objective information.

No fewer than 25 of 44 senior civil servants in the information service have departed since Labour came to power, and while some quit, many were pushed. For Sir Bernard, this is an affront to his trade that he likens, with perhaps a little too much passion, to Stalinism. "Don't let me put it too dramatically - but Stalin discovered that he did great damage to the Russian administration and military by just killing people off.

"What is quite unrealistic to suppose is that any government that comes in will rely solely on the Government Information Service for its communication - no government has done so for decades. They always bring in their own press people - the question is one of balance, and balance went out the window with this government. It got rid of a lot of experience. The question is can we get it back?"

Although Whitehall's legions of press officers may end up "flying by the seat of their pants", Sir Bernard believes that the balance can be restored. And the government is exceptionally well placed to do this, he says, with the Mountfield report.

As early as November 1997, this report into the Government Information Service, by permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office Robin Mountfield, was sounding warning bells for new Labour's media machine. Commissioned in response to the disintegration of the civil service's communications wing, it recommended setting up a new body to communicate strategy across government departments. It wanted better identification of the myriad, usually anonymous, government sources. And it called for a clear indication of whose comments were on, and whose off the record. But what impressed Sir Bernard were its calls, in spirit at least, for a "seamless web" among the policy-makers, bureaucrats and communicators. This represents an opportunity for reform that he regrets he never had.

"It could have wide repercussions throughout government and the public sector, and for business, for the way in which they communicate with the public. Good government, in the formulation of policy and its presentation, is a seamless web. It is a continuous and interdependent process. Now the question is, can this government work it out given the inherent secrecy of bureaucracy?

"If the government can implement what is in that report it will be in a stronger position. And it is in a stronger position to do so having got rid of Whelan."

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