Will the screeching doctors win with spin?

Paul Routledge lays bare the dark arts of political news manipulation
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The Independent Online
NICHOLAS JONES, political correspondent of the BBC, navigated the floor of the Winter Gardens during last week's Conservative Party conference with one ear cocked for his electronic pager. Not just for his editorial chiefs, but for Labour's spin doctors, the hard-hat brigade keen to dispute his interpretation of the day's events and rewrite it more to their liking.

Despite the presence in Blackpool of a six-member Labour team of rebuttal artists, he was troubled infrequently - unlike the previous week at the Labour conference in Brighton, when he was accused of "formenting riot and rebellion" by Labour Spinner-in-Chief Peter Mandelson MP. His crime? Reporting the last-ditch efforts of left-wing local parties to keep the pounds 4.15 minimum wage target on the agenda. Pressure to take a different line, he says, was a move to "destabilise my reporting".

Mr Jones's younger brother George, who is the political editor of the Daily Telegraph, was bawled out in the early hours by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, for "splashing" his paper with details of a private meeting between the Labour leader and union barons in the shadow cabinet room last month.

Jones Minor stood his ground during the 10-minute tongue lashing, but the spin doctors' rubbishing of his story - at least three of them joined in the operation - dissuaded other correspondents from following up a perfectly good "exclusive".

The experiences of the Jones brothers are not unique. Now that the general election campaign is under way, unofficially but for real, the propaganda war is being fought with a singular ferocity. Political pressure on the news agenda is so great that the BBC has set up a top-level monitoring unit to log cases of alleged "intimidation and manipulation".

Who do these people think they are, and where have they come from? The term "spin doctor" originated in the US in the 1980s, and has rapidly caught on throughout the English-speaking world. Brewer's Politics defines it as "a campaign official or public relations expert attached to a party or a candidate whose task is to channel facts to the media which put the best possible construction on events in an effort to build momentum".

That is certainly one way of describing the phenomenon, but it rather misses out the threats and cajolery, the screeching of obscenities, the threats to get people sacked, the promise to "break every bone in your body" that are now part of the folklore of spin-doctoring at Westminster. Nor does does it encompass the darker side - for instance, the story circulating at Blackpool that Conservative Central Office discreetly tipped off sympathetic tabloids about the friendship between Tory defector Alan Howarth MP and Lady Hollis, Labour's spokesperson on social security in the Lords.

It is not all about the murkier side of politics, and there have been some clear-cut wins for spinning. Labour's successful campaigns on tax and the "fat cats" of the privatised utilities, engineered by Gordon Brown's indefatigable spin-doctor Charlie Whelan, are two. And the Howarth affair was an undoubted plus for the Opposition, though some think the news should have been held back until the eve of John Major'sspeech on Friday.

The Conservatives like to pretend that they are above the fray, though they were spinning, and worse, 100 years before the term was coined. Last week, they were keen to be seen as the "gentlemen" to Labour's "players". Tim Collins, media consultant, and Hugh Culver, director of communications, were offering discreet advice to journalists, while ministers repaired to the press centre after their speeches to give off-the-record briefings. For the first time a team of MPs headed by Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland minister and watch-inscriber extraordinaire, was on hand at the conference to guide journalists towards "a better understanding of the politics of what is being said".

Mates, who numbers lobby correspondents among his friends, said: "I don't believe anybody helps his case by going to professional journalists and telling them what to write. That would be counter-productive."

Yet even he cannot resist spinning. Michael Heseltine's attack on the flag-waving patriotism of Tony Blair referred only to the Labour leader and not to Michael Portillo. And then, with an impish smile, Mr Mates added: "But if the cap fits anywhere else, that's another matter."

Perhaps that remark illustrates best the mischievous temptations of spin-doctoring. The stakes may be high, because we are talking about who forms the next government. But much so-called spinning is more akin to high-grade political gossip than any deep-laid strategic purpose.

The old hands shake their heads in disbelief. They remember when media relations was one man and a dog, and they were simply called spokesmen. Joe Haines, press secretary to Harold Wilson in Downing Street, argues that substance is more important than spin. "I can make John Selwyn Gummer Prime Minister in three months. But give me six months and I can't, because the public see through the spin-doctoring." Lord Tebbit agrees. "It's being overdone. The spin doctors are excessively pushy. There is a danger for Tony Blair, in that if the spin-doctoring is overdone, the punter will get the feeling that he is all about spin-doctoring and not enough about politics."

A leading Tory spinner, who asked not to be named, said: "The job of a spin doctor is to sell somebody. It is not to sell yourself. It is not about becoming a media personality. The political reality is more important than spinning. Over the last three years we have not been in difficulties because of spin doctors but because the Tory Party was tearing itself apart and we put up taxes."

Joy Johnston, Labour's new Director of Campaigns, Elections and Media, whose last job was organising BBC political news coverage, denied being "a poacher turned spin doctor" in a little-noticed article in the party conference guide. She said: "I am not a spin doctor - for the very good reason that we won't win by spin. We will win by getting our policies right and then organising in support of them." A text that could usefully be pinned on every spin doctor's office notice-board.

How they do it: the six stings of the spin doctors

The shame game

Nobody likes to miss a good story, and the spin doctor plays on this basic insecurity. Typically, he will say: "Why aren't you running with this? Everybody else is. Doesn't your paper understand what's going on here? All your

colleagues do. What's up with you?" Under this kind of pressure to run with the pack, the hapless correspondent is half-shamed, half-bullied into going along with the spin doctor's version of events.

The table scam

News editors love a table - any table of figures that tells the story at a glance, so grabbing the attention of the

reader for long enough to persuade him to read the text. Add some famous names, like the saga of the fat cats or the profits of the big banks, and the spin doctor is on a winner. He can hang any amount of political "feed" on to

a table that "exposes".

The nosebag

The restaurants of Westminster are alive to the sound of spinning. Sometimes, it seems to be going on at virtually every table - but usually just out of earshot. Spin doctors know there is no such thing as a free lunch (or "nosebag"), so they come armed with a tasty titbit for the

correspondent. It often looks better over the Australian chardonnay than it does in cold print.

The long tickle

Like tickling trout, this is not one for beginners. It requires a well-worked knowledge of the patch. The spin doctor offers the correspondent a story he wants to place. It may not be much of a tale - perhaps only something to burnish his boss's tired image. But he hangs on the end of this story the promise of something much bigger, later. The correspondent is caught. And the big fish? It often slips away.

The killing fields

Spinning is not just about placing stories. It's about killing them, too, either by straight denial or sly innuendo. Spin doctors will routinely say of a rival's exclusive story: "Don't bother. This is rubbish. It's routine. It's not worth the front page. The meeting never took place. Or, if it did, it had no significance. Now, did I tell you about...? The rule is: the louder and more vehement the denial, the more likely the story is to be true.

The division trick

This is a scam best left to the professionals. Crudely, it works like this. Minister A goes on the Today programme and says government policy is to cut taxes when it is

prudent. Minister B tells the Commons later that the

government has no plans to cut taxes. "Ah hah" says the spin doctor. "A split!" He instantly bleeps the press and the electronic media with news of a new "deep division" in government. The correspondents go for it because news editors love splits, real or manufactured.