How spin doctors try to fix the news

The 'Personality of the Year' fiasco exposed some shady political practices, writes Chris Blackhurst
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The Independent Online
Last week's row about Labour's attempt to rig the Radio 4 Today programme's Personality of the Year poll in favour of Tony Blair masked an unpalatable truth: every day of the week, both parties are attempting to rig Today and the programmes like it - and they often succeed.

Their attempts are much less crude than the circular from Labour researcher Jules Hurry suggesting party members blitz the Personality of the Year phone lines, and the results are less spectacular than that coup would have been.

But day after day, the main parties' spin doctors, such as Charles Lewington for the Tories and Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell for Labour, fight ruthlessly to ensure that interviews that seem to the general listener entirely spontaneous, unrehearsed and natural are in fact carefully controlled on behalf of their political masters.

Their relentless daily efforts to manage the airwaves put in the shade attempts to win an annual poll, or, as was revealed yesterday, in the case of the Tories, to persuade their supporters to write letters to newspapers.

They lay down precise conditions for taking part: no direct confrontation between "my" shadow minister and his Government opposite number, say; or, "my" Cabinet minister must have the last word. "There is almost a kind of tyranny now," said one senior Radio 4 producer, "with ministers and shadow ministers wanting to dictate the course of interviews."

Television and radio executives, terrified of becoming embroiled in rows about political bias, keep logs of the affiliations of MPs who have been on their programmes. They must match the parties' representation at Westminster.

People at home may wonder why they rarely hear two politicians having a good old debate. The spin doctors disapprove, insisting either that their standard-bearer appears in a one-to-one with the presenter, or, if an opponent is pencilled in against them, that the two do not talk to each other directly. Instead, one speaks, then the presenter introduces the other.

Cabinet ministers also claim that, as members of the Government, they are entitled to the last word - a ploy that enables them, regardless of what has gone before, to rubbish their opponents without any comeback. "Ministers are less and less prepared to have a debate. It is something that has got worse the longer they have been in power," said the producer.

One spin doctor has broken ranks and spelt out to the Independent on Sunday some of the secrets of the trade.

When the two main parties are asked whether senior politicians are available, they adopt different stances.

Labour is more aggressively bullying, trying to extract promises about the questions and commitments as to who will do the interview. Tim Allan, Mr Campbell's deputy, is often dispatched to soften up the researchers, while the editor is left to Mr Campbell.

Labour believes it has no other choice. Unlike the Tories, it has no other weapon in its armoury. Labour is acutely aware that, as the party in power, the Tories can always quietly threaten the withdrawal of future co-operation if demands are not met.

And that is what the Tories do. According to the producer, they wave the big stick: interviews with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor et al are entirely in their gift.

Favourite interviewers for senior politicians from all sides are John Humphrys and James Naughtie, not because they are "soft" but because they are seen as more politically knowledgable than their colleagues, Anna Ford and Sue MacGregor.

"It is easier for politicians to speak to other politicians: they feel more comfortable and sure of themselves. When the interviewer is non-political, they can be lulled into saying something they shouldn't," said the spin doctor. "Naughtie and Humphrys are people they know." Interviewees usually have a few well-rehearsed key points they want to get across. They can talk about those for hours, but anything outside, especially if it is brought up by an innocuous-sounding woman, can lead to gaffes.

Spin doctors have their own rankings of programmes. Within the trade, Today, Newsnight and Panorama are the "flagships", with Today number one.

Which is why Personality of the Year was seen as crucial. The programme is an agenda-setter. There are two nations: those that listen to Today and those that do not. Within Labour's media machine, Mr Blair winning top place - or at least a higher ranking than Mr Major - was viewed as a fitting end to the year. One of the two nations - the one that mattered - would have giving him its honour.

After the "flagships", serious political discussion programmes such as A Week In Politics are well regarded by the spin doctors because their people are treated politely and always allowed to get their points across.

One programme that politicians love if they have something to announce is Frost. "Everyone loves Frost because he is a pushover," said the spin doctor. Rejecting the view trailed in the press that David Frost carries hidden dangers precisely because he is so soft, the spin doctor said that was not borne out in practice: "Frost is a man. They feel comfortable with him. He does not push them hard."

With its early-morning Sunday slot, Frost still draws the senior politicians, if not the audience. As with GMTV, which is also graced by heavyweight figures, Frost's guests are talking not to those watching at home but to a different, much smaller audience in the media. Similarly, despite its small audience share, Sky is still popular with those with a point to peddle.

Occasionally, all requests for interviews are refused. For a period, the press room at Tory Central Office was adorned with notices instructing staff not to put anyone on Channel 4 "because they have their own agenda".

Professor John Eldridge of the Glasgow Media Group at Glasgow University, which monitors programmes for their political content, said that while the spin doctors are currently omnipotent, this would not last for ever.

"We have reached a very curious state. There used to be a sense of mystery about them, where they operated outside our knowledge. But by naming them and making their methods known, their power starts to disappear."

It was up to journalists to fight back, by bringing attention to the spin doctors, by relaying what they had said and describing their antics, said Professor Eldridge. Once that happened, he added, their power would begin to crumble.

The ball is in Today's court: the "outing" of Labour over its Personality of the Year contest may just be the beginning.

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