The truth about our spin doctors - they're really not much good

The need to be `on-message' in all circumstances has made Prime Minister's Questions a sick joke
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THE VISIT of Alastair Campbell to be quizzed by a Parliamentary committee will most probably get more column inches than any other event of the week, including even cutting the age of consent for gay men. Parliament was awash with speculation about how the mighty Alastair would perform. MPs seemed as excited and impressed as if we were a remote medieval monastery being visited by the Vatican's Cardinal secretary of state, the real power behind the throne of holy mother church.

Spin doctoring is not new however. It is merely the new name for a very old art. Anybody who has read of how Joe Kennedy intimidated and bribed journalists and TV companies into showing his sons in the best possible light will recognise all the old tricks in their modern form.

Of course, not many of today's spin doctors have the sort of money that allowed Joe Kennedy to drive around Washington in November 1958 buying up every available copy of Time magazine merely because the front cover displayed Hubert Humphrey, at that time John Kennedy's main rival for the Democratic nomination.

What seems to have created a rather unpleasant atmosphere around the spin doctors is that nowadays most of their efforts seem to be devoted to rubbishing members of their own party. Recently we have seen the systematic off-the-record rubbishing of David Clark and Chris Smith in the hope that this will open the way for a few vacancies in the Cabinet.

Even more cynical has been the way in which potential Labour candidates for mayor have been built up only to be rubbished when they fail to overtake me in the polls. Thus in the space of just a few weeks we are first told that Glenda Jackson will be a formidable candidate only to discover that she is "too wooden".

This week the same fate befell Trevor Phillips. Having been given the high-profile role of organising the Yes campaign in the London referendum, the same spin doctors and back room "experts" who advised him throughout have been the very people briefing the press about the education of his children in a private school.

Nor is it only the minor players on the Labour stage who get treated this way. No one is ever likely to forget Number 10's rubbishing of Gordon Brown as "psychologically flawed" following the publication of his authorised biography.

Although spin doctors are very good at spinning about their own omnipotence, when we examine the record, they're actually not much good. On the morning following the rebellion of 47 Labour MPs against the cut in single-parent child benefit, I turned on the radio to hear on the lead item on the Today programme that I was to be suspended from the Labour Party for leading the rebellion. As the rebellion had been very ably led by Audrey Wise and Lynne Jones, and I had only had a walk-on role, I put this down to a touch of sexism.

Given that I had spoken to the Labour Chief Whip the night before and had been impressed by his passionate belief that we had to put the row behind us and that he would do all he could do to unite the party, I couldn't believe that I was headed for the chop. I thought I had better check to be sure, so I cancelled my early morning meeting and went straight into the Whips Office where I was told not to worry - the story had come from David Hill the spin doctor in Number 10 who seemed to be trying to create the impression that we were about to get the smack of firm government. No one from Number 10 had checked with the whips about whether they planned to take action, but because David Hill was one of the most senior spin doctors it was inevitable that the story would lead BBC news bulletins.

The problem with the power of the spin doctors is that allied with the ambition of Labour MPs for office, we end up with the suppression of open public debate. The need to be "on-message" and supportive in all circumstances makes Question Time a rather sick joke. This is being reinforced every time some ambitious wannabe trots out garbage which is not only inaccurate but something they themselves clearly don't believe in. The best example recently was the soon-to-be Lord Toby Harris's explanation that the low turnout in the referendum on the London mayor was caused by voters being disturbed about speculation of who would be the candidate!

Before the General Election, Labour's most damaging row was over Harriet Harman's choice of school for one of her children. Labour spin doctors were warned of this story in the run-up to Christmas but took no action until the issue blew up in their face in the New Year, when parliament was in full session.

Any cynical spin doctor worth their pay would have had the good sense to give the story to the paper two days before Christmas knowing that it is almost impossible to revive a story after the Christmas break when parliament isn't sitting.

The dramatic and much more damaging row over whether or not we were going to join monetary union when it starts in 1999 showed the problems of having too many spin doctors spinning for different masters.

It is not, of course, just politicians who get bullied by the spin doctors. Their main target is journalists. Screaming obscenities at journalists and withholding stories from them as a form of punishment has slowly had its effect. I am now surprised by how many journalists are prepared to reveal their confidential sources.

To curb the spin doctors, editors and producers could learn from an incident back in 1985. Bernie Grant, then leader of Haringey Council, and myself, were invited by the BBC TV South East News with the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, Sir Kenneth Newman. We were both delighted as Sir Kenneth had refused ever to be held publicly accountable for his policies.

When Sir Kenneth arrived, his press officer was appalled to realise that Sir Kenneth was not to be interviewed on his own and even worse would be questioned by Bernie and I. The press officer furiously rounded on the BBC producer: "Sir Kenneth is not appearing with those shits". The BBC producer stood his ground and pointed out that we were elected representatives of Londoners and if Sir Kenneth wasn't prepared to appear, his chair would be left empty and the presenter would announce why.

The time has come for editors and producers to form a cartel to resist the spin doctors. They need to agree together to reduce the amount of anonymous briefing they are prepared to report and insist that in future these stories must be attributable.

They should also agree that they will not allow politicians or spin doctors to be told the nature of questions in advance of interview or influence the choice of interviewer. Sadly, given the closeness of New Labour to so many figures in the media such a cartel is going to remain my private fantasy. The only other way to curtail the problem is if Tony Blair decides he wants to. He could start being extremely rude to all the brown-nosers at Question Time.