Let me through, I'm a spin doctor

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The Independent Online
Was I the only one who enjoyed Panorama's cheeky take on political spin doctors this past week? The highlight had to be the whispered conversation between the presenter and Alastair Campbell, who leaned over after a minute or two to enquire, sotto voce, "Why are we whispering?"

But there wasn't much new in the report, fun as it was. Indeed, any journalist is likely to have a story or two about his or her treatment at the hands of spin doctors. Media correspondents, for instance, are constantly rung up and berated, steered, cajoled and rubbished.

When The Independent broke the story earlier this year about plans at the BBC to spin off its resources directorate into a separate, commercial subsidiary, BBC spin doctors were on the case immediately, casting doubt not so much on the story as on the implications, and suggesting to media correspondents at competing newspapers that there wasn't much in all this, and that it was hardly worth following up.

Similar efforts have been made by big television companies when the press gets too close to the truth. It would be indiscreet of me to mention the specific case, since - like all good spin doctoring - the following example was conducted off the record. Suffice it to say that after The Independent wrote a story about a Channel 3 company conducting a debt-raising exercise, the spin machine moved into high gear. Insiders rubbished the story, and the journalists, in explicit and far-from-flattering terms.

You may guess the sort of thing spin doctors say. "Journalist X has lost all credibility with this story." Or "Y is a laughing stock among colleagues". How about this one: "Do you think anybody cares what you write in your shitty little rag?"

When people start talking like this, you know you are on to something.

But there is a serious point. There is a natural tension between the media journalist and the industry he or she covers, made more unpleasant by the inflated egos of the men - mostly men - who run big media companies. In the main, the players want to conduct their business in private. But there are facts (and interpretations) that need to be aired, particularly in companies listed on the stock market, whose investors have the right to full and fair information.

So we all push as hard as we can to get the news out, while the wheeler- dealers resist most of our attempts - unless, of course, it is in their interest to get a bit of publicity.

That brings us to the second kind of spin doctoring. The first variety, of course, is damage limitation or control - the sort our friends at the BBC were engaged in following the resources story. But sometimes the spin doctors are eager, for a host of reasons, to get a story or a view into the press. The campaign by ITV companies to knock Channel 5 is a good recent example. Worried about the effects of fresh competition in the commercial television sector, Channel 3 companies have been retailing a steady stream of anti-Channel 5 stories to media correspondents.

Because this kind of spin doctoring is so widespread, the biggest challenge to journalists is to discover why a particular piece of information is being shared. Who gains? Who loses?

Consider a recent instance. Telewest, the country's largest cable operator, was deep in negotiations with Granada Sky Broadcasting, the joint-venture broadcaster, about the terms and conditions under which Telewest would carry seven GSB pay-TV channels on its cable network.

Unhappy with the price GSB was demanding, Telewest decided to take its case to the press. The first stop was The Daily Telegraph, which was offered the exclusive news that Telewest would not carry the services until it had canvassed its viewers. This was juicy stuff, since it meant Telewest was standing up to Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, one of GSB's owners and the dominant pay-TV broadcaster in the UK. Telewest said, hand on heart, that it was putting its customers first, and would not be bullied into taking the new channels. Yeah, sure.

The Telegraph did not run the story that first day, much to Telewest's apparent annoyance. So a phone call was made to The Independent, offering the same "exclusive" news. We had our doubts, but reckoned that if Telewest was on the record as saying it would not be bullied into carrying the channels, then we had ourselves a piece of news.

The next day, a Thursday, both The Telegraph and The Independent ran the story, saying that the cable operator would take at least two weeks to complete the viewer poll. Miracle of miracles, just three business days later, Telewest had decided after all that it would take the GSB services. In the interim, GSB had dropped its price - by as much as 50 per cent - and the deal was struck.

It is hard to say whether the publicity helped Telewest's negotiating position. But it certainly didn't hurt.

Finally, when the spin doctors cannot cope, or when the sensitivities are so great that a simple berating phone call is deemed insufficient, then the lawyers are called in. Unless the threatened legal action is for libel, then a lawyer's letter is the ultimate accolade for a journalist. Stripped of legalese, the message is simple: "Don't write the truth again, or there'll be trouble." They are a joy to receive.

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