The operation went according to plan. Shame about the spin

If Blair intended to stop speculation about his leadership then he needs his head examining too
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The Independent Online

Spin, news management and speculation/interpretation are all different aspects of political/media co-existence, and all three are present in the news stories about the heart and the house. Tony Blair (pictured) did not make his appointment with Hammersmith Hospital for his heart treatment - not surgery, as many headlines would have it - on Thursday afternoon.

The catheter ablation (what a lot of new terms we learn at such moments) emerged through news management. Like the date of the treatment itself, the announcement of it was planned to the minute. The Labour Party conference had to be over, the difficult leader's speech delivered. It would never have been an option to "smuggle" Blair into hospital and announce that the treatment had taken place after it had.

The No 10 news managers then had to plan the form of the announcement and how to deal with the inevitable questions about what this would mean for Blair's continuation as Prime Minister. How long? News management is "burying" a story, usually a press-released announcement on the last day of a parliamentary session or when something of much greater interest to the public is happening elsewhere.

This was not that kind of story. It required the spin-free zone of the almost live interview with television political editors for the main late evening bulletins. Andrew Marr and Nick Robinson were alerted and brought in. The Prime Minister, having decided, personally, that he was going to set his end of third-term resignation date in the same interviews, anticipated the "how long?" question, and duly provided the big story.

Andrew Marr, ever engaging, provided the human touch that makes him so popular by finishing his interview by saying: "Good luck tomorrow" to the Prime Minister. ITV managed to be utterly tacky, no fault of Nick Robinson's. While the closing credits of Bognor or Bust, the tacky quiz show presented by tacky Angus Deayton, were still rolling, we heard the voice of the continuity person saying: "Coming up next, a heart scare for the Prime Minister."

A story as big as the operation and the term of office end-date renders secondary the purchase by the Blairs of a new £3.6m house - is this their contribution to easing the property market slowdown? The Prime Minister, of course, did not mention this in his TV interviews. It was confirmed later that night, once No 10 knew The Independent had the story. This was news management of the smartest kind. The Indie had it, so let the others in on it too: hence The Guardian was able to claim the story as its own. And what better time for it to emerge?

It is surely too conspiratorial to suggest that this news management was also designed to deflect attention from the Hartlepool by-election. It was entirely on the cards that Labour would lose - it didn't happen - and had that been the case the story would still have been an also-ran under the Blair heart, term of office and house revelations.

Spin is briefing journalists so that they report, without attribution, messages the Government wants put across but does not want to say. Spin is suggesting to journalists the coded messages in what was actually said. Spin is putting a gloss on the facts, turning a deficit into a surplus, and previously announced spending into "new" money. It is repackaging old policies into new ones. There wasn't much need for spin in the disclosures of Thursday night, although the spin doctors from various corners of the jungle were undoubtedly "helping" with the interpretation of the full third term announcement and the implications for Gordon Brown.

The news management was quickly followed by the speculation/ interpretation. What did it all mean? It was not enough to say that Blair was going to have heart treatment and would resign the leadership shortly before the next election but one. Within minutes of this announcement the veteran political commentator Tony Howard was on TV and radio saying he did not believe that Blair could serve the full third term. He would have to resign well before that to give his successor a chance of settling in before the election. Howard said Blair would go in 2007, after 10 years as PM.

The Friday papers chewed over this and more, with analysis from medical experts, property experts and even political experts. It was the story that had it all - human drama, lifestyle, political intrigue. But these days the story itself is never enough.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield


Last laugh for Lombard

It appears that the FT's mischief- making is a little lost on some of its readers. On Tuesday the paper's Lombard column, written by Martin Dickson, carried a spoof article about the endless rumours of an imminent bid for J Sainsbury. Dickson "revealed" a new name supposedly considering buying the supermarket group: Lombard Private Equity, which he said was in the "early stages of mulling a bid". Unfortunately, investment company Churchill Capital did not spot the joke. It sent a report to its clients updating them on Lombard's interest.

Sarah alienates Andrew

Telegraph deputy editor, Sarah Sands, stepped outside her executive tent to try her hand as a political sketch writer at the Labour conference. This came as a surprise to the Telegraph's established sketcher, the gentlemanly Andrew Gimson. Sources say there is method in Sands's move. By doing the sketch she will improve her credentials as a political creature, thus bolstering her chances of becoming a Telegraph group editor. But there are risks. What happens if her pieces were anything less than brilliant?

Come off it, Ofcom

It is not only media and telecoms folk whose patience has been tried by the plethora of consultation papers sent out by Ofcom since the regulator came into being last year. Ofcom's own chairman, Lord Currie, is getting ratty, too. He told a lunch last week that many of the reports were forced on it by the Government, and some of the documents "were only for insomniacs or the insane".

Give it a brake, Harry

In a paean to his beloved 4x4, Harry Mount writes in the Telegraph that "it's not even true that these hulks are kiddy-killers. As sales have boomed over the last 20 years... child fatalities on the road have slumped by 30 per cent". "Slumped", have they? Oh dear, Harry, you sound so disappointed. Time we got those child fatality figures back up, eh?

Breakfast in Brighton

For obvious proprietorial reasons, The Times has very little time for the BBC - its glee over the corporation's Hutton Inquiry travails was undisguised. But perhaps things can't be that bad, after all. At the Labour Party conference in Brighton last week, senior editors from the newspaper were seen enjoying breakfast in the Grand Hotel with none other than the new BBC director general, Mark Thompson.

Brawn in the USA

Media commentator of the week: Bruce Springsteen. The rock legend and champion of blue-collar America told Rolling Stone: "The press has let the country down. It's taken a very amoral stand, in that essential issues are often portrayed as simply one side says this and the other side says that. I think Fox News and the Republican right have intimidated the press into a ... self-consciousness about appearing objective and backed them into a corner where they have ceded some of their responsibility."