A former No10 spokes-man shows how professional experience can be invaluable in launching a masters course. Chris Bunting writes.
Weeks spent sitting in the public galleries of the Hutton inquiry taught James Humphreys a valuable lesson. The director of Kingston University's new masters in political communication has become uncomfortably familiar with the man in the street's dubious view of the skills he is trying to teach.
Humphreys' new course at Kingston is not the first of its kind in Britain but, in the year that spin has threatened to topple a government, it is being marketed brazenly as a degree in those subtle arts. But can they be taught and how do you go about doing it?
Humphreys is well placed to do the teaching. As the former head of corporate communications at No 10, a post he left in March, he has more than a casual acquaintance with the dark world of spin. However, the decision to set up the course was more down to chance than Machiavellian scheming.
"I met one of the professors, Brian Brivati, on Holkham Beach in Norfolk," says Humphreys. "We were sitting on the beach and the kids were playing and we were chatting about some non-governmental organisations he had been working with. They were saying what we really need is a masters in political communication because we know there is spin but we are not sure we know how it works. The advantage, if you train your staff on a course such as this rather than bringing in expensive consultants, is that it becomes in-house wisdom and knowledge. I worked with Brian about scoping what the course would look like, just to help them out, and it was one of those things where the more I thought about it the more interesting it became and I kind of got sucked into it."
A dozen students from a variety of backgrounds started on the course this term. "One of our students is a broadcast journalist from China, another is from the National Housing Association and another works in the Thai Ministry of Transport." Intriguingly, the course also has a student from the Ministry of Defence, the department whose botched communications may have contributed to the death of government scientist David Kelly.
The aim in teaching terms is to be practical and intellectual. "One big element of the course is establishing a basic framework of understanding of how international, national, local decision-making works. What is the formal nature of their structure and how do they really make decisions?"
says Humphreys. "Then we move on to media management - we might call that spin - and direct communications with the public, staff and particular groups.
"The focus is always on the practical. If you are looking at television documentaries, you can do an academic look at the history of the medium and how it has developed over time. But you also have to sit the students down in front of an edit suite and get somebody to talk to them about how if you cut an interview like this or like that you get two completely different messages.
"The general focus is on communication: the use of effective communication to marshal forces, build alliances, to present your case effectively and to have the best outcome you can on decisions that affect your interests. This is not for people who want to star in their own version of The West Wing .
It is about closing the spin divide, which has to be good for democracy."
Humphreys is adamant that the last thing he wants to produce is a breed of fast-and-loose spin doctors who will stop at nothing to control public debate. He feels one of the lessons from the death of Dr Kelly may be the need for clearer guidelines for what he calls "ethical spin" and much better training for communications officers in following these guidelines.
"Spin becomes counterproductive if trust is undermined because then it doesn't really matter what you are spinning because nobody believes you.
There is a need for basic ethical policies and clear thinking about what it is acceptable to do in putting over your message and what it is not right to do," Humphreys says.
"But at the moment, you join the government information service as a press officer and you don't really do any training. There is no career development. Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, I think the training is rubbish. You have people who are not given enough guidance and you have people further up who are not necessarily thinking about these issues in a systematic way.
"The guidance to the Ministry of Defence press officers over the naming of Dr Kelly, for instance, was ridiculous and not a very well done piece of work.
"Even now, the two people responsible for answering the questions over whether what was done was right in the view of the government - that is, the head of the government information service, Mike Granat, and the head of the civil service, Andrew Turnbull - have not come forward to talk about what went on. That shows the weakness of the thinking here. They are responsible for guidelines for press officers and guidelines for the management of the civil service."
Humphreys adds: "What I find quite fascinating about this area is that there is an awful lot of thinking to be done. There are fundamental ethical and technical questions that we really don't know the answers to. Had Hutton played out in a certain way, and it still could do, we could have had the fall of government over the issue of spin. That gives a certain immediacy to what we are doing at Kingston."