Briefing "off the record", wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, the spin doctor is one of the more shadowy of modern heroes. When Gallup conducted a poll last month asking people to describe what the term meant, 55 per cent admitted to having no idea at all. A few (correctly) identified it as the name of a rock band. Others offered definitions including "a doctor who goes round in circles", "something to do with homeopathy" and (closer to the bone) "somebody who finds great difficulty telling the truth".
None of which will worry most spinners on the basis that the best practitioners are invisible, the most effective messages insidious. The term "spin doctor" comes from baseball, where consultants are brought in to help pitchers perfect their delivery. Thus, on both sides of the Atlantic, teams of media managers apply a favourable gloss - or "spin" - to political news. Here, the most famous exponent is Peter Mandelson (above), now Minister Without Portfolio, whose task it is to manage the mother of all PR problems, the Millennium Dome. With the responsibility for co-ordinating government presentation, 1997 made him Labour's Prince of Darkness and Tony Blair's personal lightning conductor. Then there is Alastair Campbell, the bagpipe- playing former Mirror journalist who, as Mr Blair's press secretary, is rarely away from the PM's side. Among his triumphs was bringing the Sun into Labour's camp. And then there is Charlie Whelan, who has rehabilitated Gordon Brown's image. Collectively, Labour's spin team undermined John Major's image, projecting his government as sleazy, confused and divided over Europe. Ironically, since May, they have done something similar for Mr Blair.
Summer brought the rift between Mandelson and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, when the latter likened the former to a Chinese mitten crab. In the autumn the markets were in turmoil over reports, first that Britain was speeding into European monetary union, then that it wasn't. Winter produced the biggest disaster of all: the Formula One affair, when the media machine at first lied about Bernie Ecclestone's donation to Labour, giving the impression that Mr Blair had more than a little to hide. In this sense the spin doctors really have shaped 1997: they made Labour's election possible but, once in power, allowed presentation to become the cause of several acute embarrassments.
All of which proves that government is more difficult than opposition. Some spinners even admit as much privately. Not for attribution, of course.Reuse content