Blair must stop Campbell and company spinning out of control

The gap between reality and rhetoric has turned New Labour's spin doctors into something of a liability
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The Independent Culture
IT HAS become as regular as Christmas Day. The first week in August is "Spin Doctors Week". Two years ago in an interview with me, published as Tony Blair was relaxing in Tuscany, Clare Short attacked the "people in the dark". Last August, Peter Mandelson became the news story for several weeks after allegedly spinning Robin Cook's failed marriage off the front pages. Now it is the turn of Alastair Campbell. For August at least the spin doctors should hire a spin doctor.

But there is more to this than a brief flurry of excitement in a quiet news period. The story has endured for too long to be without some substance. One August is fine, two is careless, but three? And it is not only in August that the spinners have dominated the news agenda. Since the Government came to power, from the cock-up over the single currency announcement last November to Blair's relationship with Murdoch, the sound and fury has been about the spin as much as the substance.

The sense that the Government cares more about manipulating the media than policies is growing and is damaging. There are reasons for this, but they are not the ones given by the opposition MPs on the privileges committee who have fanned into life once again several myths.

There is nothing inherently sinister in ministers appointing people to represent them in the media and for the public to pay their salaries. If senior politicians did not have spin doctors they would be spending all their time answering queries from journalists. As more and more political journalists fill more and more media outlets, spin doctors have become a logistical necessity. Furthermore if Campbell, or Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's spin doctor, ever expressed their own views rather than those of whom they represent, they would be sacked. There is an umbilical chord linking spin doctors with elected politicians. They do not function in some anarchic vacuum.

As for the departmental press officers, the noble species that opposition MPs on the privileges committee are so keen to protect, most are not very good and can be much ruder than Campbell at his worst. When some of them are phoned for basic information a journalist can be greeted with a baffled silence as if he or she had just ordered a take-away. Alternatively some of these civil servants can be too clever by half, assuming that they are protecting their vulnerable minister and keeping back information which is clearly in the public interest and of no threat to the government.

Every government tries to present its policies in the best possible light and civil servants navigate uneasily the traditionally blurred divide between working for a minister and being neutral civil servants. They did so under the Conservatives when I was persistently told by press officers at the Department of the Environment, for example, that the poll tax was going according to plan. This government rightly seeks competence in a proliferating media environment and has been quite open about it.

So the spin doctor has been demonised and the departmental press office has been nobilised. That is the mythology. Nonetheless there is a growing problem for the Government over "spin" that Tony Blair and Chief Enforcer Cunningham need to address. There has been a change in mood in the media, and quite possibly the country, which Blair and the New Labour entourage have not fully grasped. They retain a view on the politics of control that was shaped by their own early political experiences rather than in the context they now find themselves.

In trying to understand Blair , and indeed Gordon Brown, it should never be forgotten they were elected to Parliament in the Tory landslide of 1983. Their years as political apprentices followed Jim Callaghan's defeat of 1979, when Labour embarked on a public civil war. Most weeks there were live television discussions involving rival shadow cabinet members and endless internal rows on all the current affairs programmes. Then, in their early years in the Commons, they witnessed Neil Kinnock's long and often bloody battle to reform the party. Every outbreak of dissent further eroded Labour's standing in the polls. Elections were lost. If only, was the general cry, Labour could be as disciplined as the Tories.

Now they are, and, sod's law, the climate is different. Ironically, Labour's own success at the election, which the pre-election discipline helped to bring about, is partly responsible. Labour's election, according to Blair himself was to herald "a new politics". Labour was to be pluralist , less tribalist. And yet here at its centre are a group of spinners who act with ruthless speed to punish those who are no longer on message.

I do not want to exaggerate. If the spin doctors stood back and there was an outbreak of internal dissent, the media would leap on the dissenters like starved vultures and cause as much trouble as possible. No newspaper would open its report: "In a welcome change of mood, senior ministers are having a constructive debate on the level of public spending." At first there would be headlines about "Labour's descent into chaos". But there must be, to coin a phrase, a third way, a route that allows former ministers to speak their minds without being rubbished and for Labour MPs to mouth more than the latest vacuous soundbite.

As for Campbell himself, he could do much to end the obsession in himself by televising his lobby briefings. After the novelty had worn off viewing figures would hardly register. Most of the time all he has to offer is information that "the Prime Minister is having tea with the Foreign Secretary of Japan". Unfortunately the egos of the elected ministers will not permit such exposure, although Campbell would actually become less talked about as a result.

There is a more fundamental reason why the spin doctors have become something of a liability, which no member of the privileges committee considered. Over the past year there has been far too big a gap between "spin" and substance. Virtually every government initiative is announced with a degree of hyperbole that can only create a sense of resentment when the reality sinks in. This government moves incrementally, sometimes for good reason. But each slow move forward is presented as a near revolutionary step. According to the spin we have already had the most radical overhaul of the welfare state in 30 years; Britain now leads again in Europe; and the Government's announcement that it may one day, although who knows when, join the single currency was "historic". This gap between the rhetoric and the reality is the most dangerous element in the spinning game, whether carried out by special advisers or the civil servants. Over the next year, the rhetoric should be much more restrained - or, more fruitfully, the policies should match it.

In the same way that John Major - a decent politician - became tainted with sleaze, Tony Blair and his entourage are in danger of appearing arrogant with power. This is not the case. If anything Blair uses power too cautiously. But as Major would tell him, once perceptions have formed, they stick. Blair needs to move fast to ensure this one does not.