Book review: Spin doctors: the bigger picture


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

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