"Spin doctor" is a relatively new term for an old trade, but it also represents a change in the traditional role of the press officer. My earliest memory of the term came during the American presidential election of 1988, when, after the first Bush vs Dukakis debate, both candidates' press officers descended on the waiting press corps to put their "spin" on how the debate had gone.
It's not so long ago that press officers' role was little more than that of providing information and relatively bland press releases. Government and councils had their press officers but they were specifically barred from performing any political role. It was not until the February 1974 Labour government started appointing policy advisers that we first saw the appearance of these strange new hybrid figures, paid for by the tax payer but serving a purely party interest.
At the start of that brief, shining high point of human civilisation, otherwise known as the Labour GLC administration of 1981-86, I realised we would need somebody who could explain to journalists what the new Labour administration was doing. The traditional career local government officers who filled the press office specifically did not wish to get involved in explaining what was going on inside the administration before policy had been agreed. We decided to allow each of the main party groupings to appoint a press officer, and the Labour Party HQ let us poach Veronica Crichton from the press office.
Veronica had been seconded to help the London Labour Party during the GLC election campaign, and I was impressed by her direct and blunt manner. When I asked what she thought about the coming contest between myself and Andrew McIntosh for leadership of the Labour Group, she replied that it was regrettable that such an important post had such a limited pool of talent to choose from! In accepting the post she made it clear that she would not lie on behalf of the Labour Group because that would compromise her professional reputation.
She was an immediate success with journalists, who rapidly realised that her briefings were accurate and impartial. She also recognised that her duty was to the Labour group as a whole, and was never guilty of unattributable rubbishing of those members of the Labour Group who happened to disagree with me.
The problem with the growth of the spin-doctoring industry is that the practitioners have come to identify too closely with the individual they are serving. No one is more to blame for this than Peter Mandelson himself. Peter always saw his role as promoting the leader of the Labour Party rather than the party itself. Unlike Veronica Crichton he almost seemed to relish getting involved in internal party fights, even though he was the Campaigns and Communications Officer for the Labour Party collectively.
My first experience of being on the receiving end of Peter's spin-doctoring came when I stood for election to Labour's NEC in 1987. Peter was strongly pushing Bryan Gould for the vacant seat on the NEC, and throughout the summer a series of anonymous briefings appeared posing the contest as a straightforward battle between Bryan and myself. Whenever Bryan and I met at meetings he expressed surprise that the media were reporting the contest in this way, because there were in fact a score of candidates chasing the seven places.
As Bryan put it (and as, in fact, happened in the election) "I wouldn't be at all surprised if both of us got elected". Of course, Peter had tried to portray the issue as a struggle between Bryan and me, because even then it fitted his own agenda of rubbishing "old" Labour's traditions and personalities - Bryan was seen as a "moderniser".
Ironically, because of Peter's briefing, my election was seen as a major defeat for Neil Kinnock. Of course, Bryan and myself broadly agreed on the value of Keynesian economic policy and eventually the Labour leadership decided to dispense with his services after he was found guilty of being caught in possession of an independent mind.
Once elected, I decided that I would treat NEC proceedings as confidential, and would not answer questions from journalists as I left the meetings. I soon discovered, however, that after every meeting Peter was briefing the press on how Neil Kinnock had demolished his left wing opponents.
I wouldn't have minded if Peter, as a paid party official, was giving an impartial account of the meetings, but often his report to the journalists was not just partisan, but frankly inaccurate to the point of dishonesty.
After several months I decided that I would put my own side of the story to journalists, only to discover that junior Labour Party press officers had been instructed to follow me and Dennis Skinner in order to eavesdrop on what we were saying. They always looked a bit ashamed of their behaviour and, as supposedly impartial party officials, they did indeed have something to be ashamed about. This was not what Labour Party members paid their salaries for.
There was a brief respite from this pattern of negative briefing against colleagues while John Smith was leader of the Labour Party, but with Peter Mandelson's return to the inner circle, matters worsened.
It's not surprising, therefore, that Gordon Brown felt he needed his own spin doctor, both to watch his back and to deal with critics.
The problem for the Labour Party, as this climate of back-stabbing between powerful barons escalated, was that the very real achievements of the Labour government were often pushed on to the back pages, while the headlines were dominated by the outpourings of the spin doctors. People applying to work for Gordon Brown and Tony Blair tended to complain that they were being asked "what can you do for Gordon?" or "what can you do for Tony?".
I conclude this first Charlie Whelan Annual Memorial Column with the hope that all these highly paid young men and women might start asking themselves another question: "What can I do for the Labour government as a whole?"Reuse content