Book review: Spin doctors: the bigger picture

SULTANS OF SPIN: THE MEDIA AND THE NEW LABOUR GOVERNMENT BY NICHOLAS JONES, GOLLANCZ, pounds 18.99

THANK GOD for Nicholas Jones. You may have noticed his contributions on TV and radio as a political correspondent for the BBC - insightful, and delivered in a slightly insistent tone. Excellent as his reports are, it is not for these that we must be truly thankful. Rather, it is for what Jones calls "my attempts to investigate the often hidden connections between the promoters and reporters of politics".

This is not easy: "many of the participants consider my preoccupation with their activities to be nothing short of a time-wasting obsession". Jones has been described as a trainspotter, concentrating too much on the processes at the expense of what a spin doctor would call the "big picture". But think of the Bernie Ecclestone affair. Think of the departures of Peter Mandelson and Charlie Whelan. Think of Drapergate. As Jones amply demonstrates, during the first two years of this Government, crises were often as much about process as policy. Spin has all too often eclipsed the big picture, and the spinners have no one to blame but themselves. Jones's detailed accounts of these episodes are far from a waste of time.

The intimacy of the Prime Minister's relationship with his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, is well documented. But Jones has an eye for detail. He tells the story of a routine photo opportunity at a school where Blair is asked by a cameraman to write the word "literacy" on a blackboard. "For an instant, Blair stopped. As Blair silently mouthed the word `literacy' I saw his spokesman shake his head, ever so slightly. Blair tried again, this time suggesting the word `education' as an alternative. Campbell signalled his approval with a quick nod. Blair set to work, smiling as he wrote `education No 1 priority'. He turned his face to the cameras and punctuated his own photo-opp with a big grin. Blair has been so well trained, that he automatically sought the nod from Campbell."

Jones also gives Campbell credit as a masterful wordsmith: the phrase "People's Princess" is duly attributed. Campbell is also rightly identified - in contrast even to such powerful predecessors as Joe Haines or Bernard Ingham - as a significant driver of policy, even a strategist.

But there is also a side to Labour's spin doctors, and Campbell in particular, that is deeply unattractive. Jones's book is laced with details of the profane and bullying abuse of journalists. We are familiar with Charlie Whelan's famous catch-phrase "bollocks". Less well known is his telephoned complaint to Jones about a "two-way" report he had just completed with John Humphrys for Today. Whelan's critique ran as follows: "Your interview was classic - breathless, unintelligible nit-picking and who the fuck is Ecclestone anyway?"

Or take Campbell remarking to the lobby: "Ah, hang on a minute. Look there's Nick Jones over there in his pre-delivery stage. No, I'm wrong, he's having an orgasm over there in the corner." Or his remark to the Political Editor of Channel 4, Elinor Goodman: "Elinor, will you stroke my thigh and get Nick Jones excited."

Jones's answer to this, and the other manipulative, misleading ways of the spinners, is to televise the briefings Campbell gives to political lobby journalists. He can't be right. The sessions would quickly become a TV-dominated circus, an even lower-grade version of Prime Minister's Questions in which the newspapers, and especially the provincial press, would be sidelined. It would encourage the development of a "White Commonwealth" of trusted correspondents who would get special briefings elsewhere. Spin would be driven underground. The technology is not the point, even if it would stop the swearing.

What is the point? Jones demonstrates the skill with which Campbell and the others sometimes manipulate the media. They have politicised the press operations of the civil service and undermined Parliament by trailing more stories in advance. They will bend the rules just as much as they are allowed. But that, surely, is their job. It is their function, as Peter Mandelson once put it, to "create the truth".

It is the job of journalists, opposition MPs and internal Labour Party critics to rein in the worst excesses. And the spin doctors are no match for a press pack determined to do its job properly, as Mandelson, Whelan, Draper and Wegg-Prosser themselves would testify. What fills Jones with a mixture of admiration and irritation is the way in which Campbell has - so far - been so adept at body-swerving his way round his critics.

Let us leave the last - admittedly overblown - words with one of Rupert Murdoch's finest, Richard Littlejohn: "No 10 is aided and abetted by a bone-idle and corrupt lobby system littered with journalists who are happy to play the part of spoon-fed stooges." Next time he is accused by Alastair Campbell of enjoying an orgasm in the corner, Nick Jones would do well to comfort himself with the thought that he will never fall into that category.

Sean O'Grady

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
exhibition Gillian Orr traces the movement from Bram Stoker to Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone