Swing time with the sultans of spin
John Rentoul hears gossip from Bobby's gang: Campaign 1997: how the General Election was won and lost by Nicholas Jones
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Saturday 16 August 1997
Nick Jones is an odd journalist. Indefatigable, persistent, obsessive, he is always asking questions of anyone who will listen, punctuated with his trademark "Hm?". He is interested in the mechanics of modern political communications and fascinated by the different tactics used by press officers, in the same way a trainspotter would be by an unusual arrangement of wheels. Like a trainspotter, with his tape recorder and notebook, he patiently records the workings of a system which most people simply regard as a means to an end.
The result is an odd book which in no way justifies its subtitle - as the explanation for Labour's landslide is a complex historical question - but is surprisingly interesting all the same. Jones's prime oddity is that he takes spin doctors seriously and sees them as the proper subject of reporting.
Like his previous book, Soundbites and Spin Doctors, much of this one is simply an extended diary of his working life as a BBC journalist. That means it is weighed down by trivial detail about news stories of no lasting importance, but studded with revealing bursts of dialogue written down almost verbatim from Charlie Whelan, Alastair Campbell and David Hill (press officers respectively for Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and the Labour Party) and from Peter Mandelson, who holds a mythic status in the spin doctorate. The Tories are much less open, and most of the time Jones quotes them trotting out the party line. His account sparks to life when the Labour spinners work themselves into a lather of foul-mouthed fury with journalists or, in the case of Whelan on Mandelson, start dissing each other.
Whelan complains to Jones that "Mandelson has been bollocking me all morning", and has constantly tried to undermine him. He admits that it was he who leaked the identity of "Bobby", the secret friend whom Blair thanked in his speech after winning the Labour leadership. This was Mandelson's codename, used to conceal his role from Blair supporters who were hostile to him. "I don't care who knows what I did after the way Mandelson abused me in the leadership election," Whelan says.
This is all trivial enough, except that it is, as Jones points out, symptomatic of tensions at a higher level, principally between Brown and Blair. The frustration of the book is that he takes it no farther than that. After many pages of detailing the spinning, speculating and reporting behind Labour's decision not to raise income tax on the better-off, for example, Jones concludes that there was a real disagreement between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Yes, but what were the arguments? Why did Blair get his way?
Not only do the motives and characters of the big players remain shrouded in mystery; their spin doctors are not much better exposed. The vignettes of Peter Mandelson, for example, do little to shed light on the extraordinarily complex character at the heart of the Government.
History is something that used to be written after the dust had settled and the 30-year rule had opened the records, when great men and women started to reflect on their lives. Now it is attempted in the Sunday newspapers and, almost as frequently, in books like this that operate on the basis of a 30-minute rule. But a blurred insight into the way politicians and journalists interact - normally concealed from readers, viewers and voters - is still better than finding out what really happened only after many years.
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