The Media Column: Are the pundits the real sinners of spin?

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The Independent Online

Over the weekend, I tried as hard as I could to keep a handle on Lying-in-state-gate. I forced myself to wade through the speculation about Black Rod's "killer memo", to evaluate The Sunday Times's second-hand accusation of ministerial smear attempts against noble Black Rod, and even to plough through the five-page account in The Mail on Sunday, based – I imagine – on a lengthy lobby-terms conversation with Black Rod himself.

Over the weekend, I tried as hard as I could to keep a handle on Lying-in-state-gate. I forced myself to wade through the speculation about Black Rod's "killer memo", to evaluate The Sunday Times's second-hand accusation of ministerial smear attempts against noble Black Rod, and even to plough through the five-page account in The Mail on Sunday, based – I imagine – on a lengthy lobby-terms conversation with Black Rod himself.

It isn't easy. Some of the journalists involved here display great zeal and an attention to the tiniest detail that can give succour to their case. How scrupulous they are in examining facts and hypotheses that don't quite fit their alarming picture of an attention-mad PM seeking to hog the cameras at the greatest state occasion for half a decade is quite another matter. I recall that there were journalists (notably working for The Daily Telegraph) who wrote complex stories in the mid-Nineties that suggested that Bill Clinton was not just an adulterer, but also a murderer, a fraudster and a drug addict. I don't remember any retractions.

The problem for any of us who worry about being railroaded into accepting a particular version of events is staying sufficiently focused. It's like being a plain-clothes police officer infiltrating a Trekkies' convention or the AGM of Doncaster Rovers supporters club. You either stick with the obsession and become peculiar yourself, or you just give up the ghost and let them get on with it.

In some ways it doesn't matter. I also realised at the weekend that even if Downing Street's version was widely accepted as credible (and it is quite possible to imagine a culture clash between Black Rod's office and a determined private secretary being responsible for two-thirds of this interminable story), then the whole thing would just mutate into a story about whether pressure was made to bear on Black Rod to say this or that, or whether the PM's judgement had been flawed etc, etc, etc. The BBC, with its army of Laura Trevelyans and Gutto Harris anxious to do two-ways on every bulletin, would just keep it going for ever. And it is the BBC that puts the stamp of significance on a story.

My Independent on Sunday colleague Steve Richards, himself a former BBC political correspondent, wrote that, in his experience, it was the media (rather than the politicians) that were obsessed with spin. He would, he said, be a millionaire if he had accepted every invitation to appear on a programme about spin. By contrast, none of us pundits is ever asked to talk about, say, the politics of education or race.

But what is spin? Spin is the presentation of news in such a way that stories favourable to your client or cause get to appear often, and unfavourable stories appear more rarely. Mrs Thatcher's press officer, Bernard Ingham, was a spin-doctor before the name was invented. The Royal Family employs several; so does the BBC; so does your local council. If our primary school could afford it, we'd hire one to get our sporting and academic successes into the local paper.

There is no magic to this, only levels of sophistication. For spin to work, someone must be spun, and that someone will usually be a journalist (what's the point, after all, of spinning to a bloke in a pub?). And in the case of politics, the spinee is usually a political journalist – a Gutto Harri or a Laura Trevelyan. All you need to do to neutralise spin is to use your ears, eyes and brains. Look at the journalists who cannot be spun. I mentioned the transport specialist Christian Wolmar last week, and there are several more specialists on this and other papers so well-informed that it would be hard for an army of spin-doctors to throw them off the scent.

Policy stories, though, are difficult to do. As I write, a Today programme interview on crime with Lord Falconer has just been truncated by a series of questions on Lying-in-state-gate.

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