Spin Doctors: How `Government Sources' massaged the message

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The Independent Online
Labour's spin doctors have been busy in Brighton this week, creating news agendas, setting some hares running and snaring others. Our Political Editor examines their machinations and manipulations.

Last weekend two Sunday newspapers were told that Peter Mandelson, founding father of the spinning trade in Britain, was not going to win a place on the Labour Party's national executive committee.

The two political reporters did not write that piece of "news", because they did not believe it to be true. They actually thought it was an attempt to make the minister without portfolio look even better when he won a "surprise" victory on Tuesday.

When Tuesday came, and it was certain that he was not going to win a seat, the spin doctors were out in force at the headquarters hotel, the Metropole, and, later, in the conference media centre.

The damage-limitation was based on the "line" that the national executive vote was a personal beauty contest that had nothing to do with Tony Blair's project to modernise the party and that, anyway, Mr Mandelson was not very well-known to party members. Only the delegates from Mars can have missed Mr Mandelson over the last year.

One of the most bizarre exercises in damage-limiting spin was carried on the front page of yesterday's Sun, under the banner headline: "TV star's twisted love for Blair's top man". The story identified Alastair Campbell, press secretary to the Prime Minister, as "the innocent victim of the actress's deluded passion".

A number of informed sources said yesterday that Mr Campbell had given the story to the Sun because he wanted to "spoil" a more hostile version that a Sunday newspaper had been planning to run this weekend.

Some of the week's spin was more positive, such as the briefing on Gordon Brown's speech, restoring the party commitment to full employment - although the general public could be forgiven for wondering how the preview could attract more attention than the Chancellor's speech itself.

At least Mr Brown uttered the words. The Sunday Express reported this week that Mr Blair would refer to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which he did not do. But the same newspaper presented a preview briefing on the Blair speech as if it had got hold of an early draft. Mr Blair was so puzzled by that hint of a leak that he asked Mr Campbell: "What on earth is going on here?"

Mr Campbell could not have made more use of the Prime Minister's text. The Observer was told that his battle against global warming would form a centre-piece of the speech. By Tuesday, it had been boiled down to a single paragraph. The Daily Mail fared much better, reporting on Tuesday's front-page that the family would be a centre-piece, as it was.

But the spin itself can backfire, as it appeared to do when Tuesday's Telegraph carried a front-page report saying that Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, planned to warn in his conference speech that members of health boards would lose their jobs if they used private health care.

By the time the speech was delivered, the threat appeared to have been watered down and there was a strong suspicion that Mr Dobson had been forced to back off for fear of attracting unwelcome controversy.

On the party side of the spin operation, one of the early exercises of the week was to spread messages of gloom and doom about Wednesday's education vote on tuition fees. Broadcasters were told on Sunday that the leadership was anticipating defeat, which did not happen when the debate took place. The spin doctor who was responsible for that particular calumny later confessed that the purpose of the exercise had been to turn the heat and spotlight on to the delegates who were threatening to vote against government policy.

In effect, the media were being used as a weapon, raising the question for delegates: "Do you really want to be responsible for a defeat that will be splashed all over the news as a humiliation for the Government?"

The BBC gave that report prominence in its preliminary Sunday reports on the conference. But in an interview with Progress, a mainstream party periodical, John Birt, the BBC director-general, said: "In the perfect world, there would be less spin-doctoring than there is. Certainly, I don't think [it] is an aid to good journalism; I think too much of our journalists' and editors' [time] is taken up listening to spin doctors, rather than doing their jobs."

What Mr Birt does not seem to understand is that, because the spin doctors often make and deliver the news, it is part of the job of reporters to have their ears bent by them.

Objects of obsession, page 19

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