Politicians rely on them, tycoons swear by them, even the Queen has one. Paul Vallely reports on the unstoppable rise of the spin doctors

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It is not hard to understand the outrage felt last week by loyal middle-of-the-road Labour Party activists when they read of Philip Gould's plans to give their party yet another marketing-driven make-over. For Gould is a member of one of Britain's newest, most influential and most despised professions: he is a spin doctor.

Several things about spin doctors alarm Labour's rank and file. Where your traditional party member might talk about class politics, Gould and his ilk deal in the adman's jargon of Unique Selling Propositions. Where traditional members believe that policies should reflect the labour movement's values, the spin doctors believe that they must respond to opinion poll ratings. But what rankles most is that these smart-suited young men (they are almost without exception men) should be in positions of such power without doing their time in the party's ranks, winning their spurs by labouring their way through committee meetings and local elections. People like Gould are not elected, they are not accountable to anyone; they get there through being part of a self-appointed clique around the leader. At least that is how it must look to many in the Labour rank and file.

And it's not as if Gould is alone. The infamous memo by Tony Blair's adviser, written last March, in which he warned that Labour was not fit to govern, was apparently commissioned by Peter Mandelson, Blair's closest confidant and the largest spider spinning away on the political web. One of the chief beneficiaries of Gould's plan was Alastair Campbell, Blair's press officer, who Gould recommended should be given unprecedented power to shape Labour's public image. If Blair gets to Number 10, it may be the most spun and doctored government there has yet been.

Spin doctors have only recently risen to positions of such prominence. Indeed, it is only a matter of weeks since they made it into the Concise Oxford Dictionary for the first time. (A spin doctor, it says, is "a political spokesperson employed to give a favourable interpretation of events to the media".) The word first appeared in 1984, in the New York Times, and migrated across the Atlantic in 1988.

Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's legendary press secretary, might lay claim to being an early version, but it is the Conservative Party that we have to thank for the first fully fledged spin doctor in Britain. Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, was the first real exponent of the black art, not only acting as a conduit for the news but "interpreting" it for the journalists he favoured and denying it to those of whom he disapproved.

Similar Machiavellian skills are now frequently practised in the business world. Financial journalists are regularly besieged by spin doctors ringing to put a favourable gloss on things when a big deal is announced, a takeover is imminent or bad results are to be published. "Companies, like governments, are economical with the truth," says Michael Shea, who earned his PhD in spinning on behalf of no less a client than HM the Queen when press officer at Buckingham Palace. Queens and princes used to have equerries and valets; now they cannot survive without spin doctors.

Even people in jail have them. This week Nick Leeson, the trader alleged to have brought down Barings Bank, appeared on television interviewed by Sir David Frost, an event orchestrated by the spin doctors employed by his lawyers in an attempt to further his campaign to be tried in Britain rather than Singapore.

Exactly how these alchemists work is not easy to discern. On the surface, it seems simply to involve talking to journalists, often over long lunches. (Favoured haunts: the Ivy for supper; the Savoy Grill for lunch, and its River Room for breakfast; and in Covent Garden, Rules, Christopher's and Orso's.) But they are not mere public relations executives. They do not just organise press conferences, issue press releases and field phone calls from the media.

Michael Shea, who has just written a book entitled Spin Doctor, is positively protective of the term: there is, he insists, no question of admitting to the fold the likes of Lynne Franks, the role model for Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, or notorious servicers of the tabloids such as Max Clifford.

"Max Clifford is not a spin doctor, he's just a publicist who takes someone like David Mellor's mistress and runs her across the front pages of the tabloids and then takes money from both the client and the papers. He's obviously good at it. But it's something quite different," Shea says. He likes to think that the best spin doctors are, by definition, people you have never heard of. "A good spin doctor never gets his name in the papers," he insists.

Certainly that is true of the top City spinners. Alan Parker is not exactly a household name, but financial journalists testify that he is one of business's top placers and fixers, who can command more than pounds 500 an hour for his services. He has more than 100 prestigious clients, including ICI and Trust House Forte and, City scribblers say, one day he will eclipse Sir Tim Bell, PR's most famous son and another of Margaret Thatcher's spin doctors.

The true spin doctor relentlessly spins his line trying to persuade people to see things from their client's point of view."They are extremely good at thinking at our level," acknowledges the BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones, who has recently published a book on the subject. In Soundbites and Spin Doctors he writes: "An essential qualification is an ability to understand and predict how reporters might think and react in any given set of circumstances. While most self-respecting publicists can dream up a story and imagine how they would like to see it presented, a far harder task is to calculate in advance what might be the worst-case scenario should the news media decide to put the least favourable interpretation on what has happened."

There is more to it than that. A spin doctor must be part of an inner circle. He must be so close to the people he works for that they trust him to speak for them. That is why journalists go to spin doctors - to get information from the inside track. "Journalists are often desperate to speak to authoritative sources capable of giving them an instant interpretation of what has happened, and also background guidance on the likely consequences," says Jones. "And in the years to come - with the growth of television news, and as print journalists compete more fiercely as circulation pressures increase - politicians, increasingly aware of how the media will determine their chances of success, will seek to control still further the information to which those journalists have access."

Few journalists will admit to being swayed by a spin doctor. Political editors claim that they are immune to their seductive techniques. "They perform an advocacy function," said one seasoned political editor. "They make a case. You make a judgement. You take account of it."

Others are more candid. "He feeds you his line without you even realising what he is doing," says one former financial journalist about Sir Tim Bell, who usually comes on the telephone with a manner which is relaxed, chatty and confidential.

Charm is a vital part of the repertoire. Peter Mandelson used to hover in the journalists' writing room at the end of the day at the Labour Party conference like a friendly form-master checking everyone was getting on with their homework as they wrote up their accounts of the day. He was always on hand to "help" should anyone need anything "clarifying" or putting "in context".

But spin doctors are at their most effective when they are setting the news agenda by feeding a journalist with an exclusive story favourable to their client. Every spin doctor has favoured journalists with whom he forms a Faustian pact. Allow me to use you to plant our stories, he implies, and I will keep you well supplied with exclusives which will further bolster your reputation as a journalist in the know.

Dave Hill, the chief media spokesperson for the Labour Party, explained: "You've got to know where to place stories and where to develop them. You also have to know how to kill stories, how to divert people on to another story and how to minimise the damage when you have to admit something. It's also about not lying. I never lie, which is not to say I don't know how to dampen a story down or twist it. But I never lie.''

To do this effectively, and discreetly, a spin doctor must have a detailed knowledge of the hierarchies of television news departments and newspapers to identify the right journalist to call to influence an editorial, a business story or a political report.

But their most detailed acquaintance has to be with their own client. In the case of the top operators, such as Bell, Ingham and Mandelson, it is clear that the intimacy is real and that they can gave a major input in formulating policy.

Michael Shea remarks: "They are really key figures. They will go in to people at the top of the political tree every day and say: here is what you should say and do today. And they do it. To put out something at the right time, in the right way, through the right person will win friends, where the same information at the wrong time, in the wrong way, through the wrong person, will make enemies. Such spin doctors set the agenda. They are not just PR people. They frame the decisions that others then purport to take."

It is this interference with the political process by shadowy figures who are unelected and accountable to no one that is the most unpalatable aspect of the phenomenon. For all that, spin doctors, according to Michael Shea, are going to become ever more influential, especially in politics. Whether the Conservatives can pull back from the abyss, he believes, will rest more on the skills of the spin doctors than on the politicians they are supposed to serve.

"Perception is everything in politics," Shea insists, "particularly so when there is so little between the Tory and Labour party on so many issues, such as education. In such a situation, everything will depend upon sleights of hand and tricks with mirrors. The closer the parties run together on substance, the more the spin doctors will be needed to create an illusion of difference."

Don't say you weren't warned.

SIR BERNARD INGHAM

Age: 63

Education: Hebden Bridge Grammar School.

Current jobs: chairman, Bernard Ingham Communications; columnist, Daily Express.

Previous employment: chief press secretary to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister; reporter for the Guardian.

Telephone manner: "Don't mess with me, I'll crush you."

Charm rating: 5

Big claim: acted as Mrs Thatcher's press bulldog for 11 years.

Biggest setback: described by John Biffen as "the sewer, not the sewage". Famously barged away BBC reporter as Mrs Thatcher made a press statement in Paris.

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL

Age: 38

Education: City of Leicester Boys' School; Caius College, Cambridge.

Job: chief spin doctor for Tony Blair, day-to-day briefer of journalists.

Previous occupation: political editor of the Daily and Sunday Mirror, political commentator for Today newspaper.

Telephone manner: direct, occasionally abrasive.

Charm rating: 5

Big claim: spotting that John Major tucks his shirt into his underpants.

Biggest setback: giving the Guardian political editor, Michael White, a black eye following a disagreement over Robert Maxwell's death in 1992.

ALAN PARKER

Age: 39

Education: Bryanston, Holland Park School, Central London Polytechnic

Job: runs Brunswick PR agency, which he set up in 1987.

Previous employment: worked at the PR firm Broadstreet, learning the trade from the top City PR man Brian Basham. More than 100 clients, including ICI, Glaxo, Barclays.

Telephone manner: crisp

Charm rating: 7

Big claim: scored famous victory over Tim Bell by masterminding publicity for ICI's defence against rumoured Hanson takeover bid.

Biggest flop: argument with then Sunday Times City editor, Jeff Randall, over a rumour about Vodaphone's sponsorship of the Derby.

PETER MANDELSON

Age: 41

Education: Hendon County Grammar School; St Catherine's College, Oxford.

Current job: Labour MP for Hartlepool since 1992, Labour Whip, governor of English National Ballet.

Previous employment: producer at LWT, member of Lambeth Borough Council, Labour Party director of campaigns and communications, 1985-1990.

Telephone manner: flirtatious, but can be bullying.

Charm rating: 9

Big claim: thought up Red Rose logo (and got Neil and Glenys Kinnock to toss roses to conference faithful), and soft-focus election film of Neil and Glenys walking hand-in-hand by the sea to sound of Brahms.

Biggest flop: failure to get Kinnock elected.

SIR TIM BELL

Age: 53

Education: Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Barnet. Joined ABC Television at 18.

Current jobs: chairman, Lowe Bell Communications; director, Centre for Policy Studies.

Previous employment: managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi; special adviser to chairman of National Coal Board. Has unrivalled list of clients, including Baroness Thatcher, David Mellor, FW de Klerk, Maurice Saatchi. Has worked for many big companies, including Hanson.

Telephone manner: an old mate you have a drink with.

Charm rating: 9 Big claim: credited with remodelling Margaret Thatcher for election victories in 1983 and 1987.

Biggest flop: his team outraged war veterans with the idea of spam fritter tossing to celebrate VE Day.

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