Yes, Prime Minister: Why we will never be without spin doctors

David Cameron will be hoping that his new advisor, Craig Oliver, attracts fewer headlines than his predecessor.
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Some people will bet on more or else anything. In the past of couple of weeks, punters have chanced hundreds of pounds on trying to guess who would take over as David Cameron's Director of Communications, and it was all pure profit for the bookies. No odds were offered on the job going to Craig Oliver because his name never featured in the speculation. Scarcely anyone outside the BBC knew that there existed someone with the job title controller of English news as BBC Global.

After the prolonged furore that followed from the appointment of Andy Coulson, who said goodbye to staff at Downing Street on Monday, David Cameron evidently decided that this was not the moment to make another high profile appointment that might bring trouble in its wake.

It means that his media operation has lost the down-to-earth Essex-boy touch that Coulson brought to it, as a working-class boy made good with a valuable understanding of tabloid newspapers. Oliver knows the broadcasting media from the inside, although his experience of it is generally in the more civilised parts of the BBC where predatory beasts like Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys are not found. Newspapers, and especially tabloid newspapers, are outside his experience.

But David Cameron has pretty good relations with the mass media, for a Prime Minister whose government is engaged in heavily cutting public spending while the economy is at a standstill. He is reasonably popular with the public – more so than his party, and is perhaps wise not to bring in anyone whose arrival might disrupt the efficient machine he already has working for him.

But it should be thought that the hiring of a relative unknown from one of the civilised backwaters of the BBC signals an end to the age of to the spin doctor.

In the modern environment, no high-level politician would be so foolish as to dispose of the services of these much-maligned professionals. Some have tried, only to find that it causes more trouble to be without competent spin doctors than to have them around. Gordon Brown tried it when he became Prime Minister and relegated Damian McBride to a back room in Downing Street where, having too much time on his hands, McBride wrote an email which turned into the biggest "spin doctor"-related scandal there has ever been, while in the front office the media operation disintegrated into chaos.

Eventually, on Christmas Eve, a desperate Prime Minister rang a man he had never met, a public-relations specialist named Stephen Carter, to plead with him to come and sort out the problem. Carter's tenure in Downing Street was another disaster.

While spin doctors will be with us for a long time yet, what we may be seeing is the end of the era of aggressive attack-dog spin doctors such as McBride and his predecessor, Charlie Whelan, and the end of highly paid, high-profile spin doctors such as Alastair Campbell.

It used to be suggested in all seriousness that when Alastair Campbell was working in Downing Street, he was the "real" Deputy Prime Minister, for it was a fact that he was paid more than the real Deputy Prime Minister. The same was said about Margaret Thatcher's spin doctor, the less highly remunerated but no less influential Bernard Ingham. When Labour was in opposition in the late 1980s, it was said that the party's "real" leader was Peter Mandelson, who was director of communications from 1985 to 1990.

Such claims are not likely to be heard in the future, even about the Labour Party, where two senior political journalists, Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts, were recently recruited to Ed Miliband's entourage. Their appointments show that Miliband knows that he cannot realistically hope to become Prime Minister without proper advice on how to use the mass media, but they are just advisers. No one imagines they are going to run the show.

The term "spin doctor" is so well-embedded in the public consciousness now that it seems odd that only a generation ago, no one in this country had ever heard it or used it. Mobile phones and home computers entered British life before the first "spin doctor" was ever known by that title, as I checked while I was writing No Such Thing As Society, an account of Britain in the 1980s.

The Americans were ahead of us in the art of spin-doctoring, and the citizens of New York were probably the first outside the narrow circle of political professionals to be introduced to the term when, on the morning of the last televised debate of the presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale on 21 October 1984, the unfamiliar phrase popped up in a headline in The New York Times. "Tonight at about 9:30, seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the press room of the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium," the article forewarned. "A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won't be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They'll be the Spin Doctors..."

Later that week, The Washington Post offered a handy definition of this new subspecies – "the advisers who talk to reporters and try to put their own spin, or analysis, on the story".

This was too late in the campaign for it to bed into the language to be exported, but when the next presidential election came around, in 1988, the term quickly entered into the reportage. Readers of The Independent were first alerted to their existence on 7 October 1988, though at this stage the assumption was that such people existed only in the USA. As late as January 1990, Robert Hanks asserted in this newspaper: "The spin doctor's job is, in America, to mingle with the press after a politician has made a speech, and to explain what it was that the politician meant, as opposed to what he said... We don't, over here, have spin doctors."

That last bit was simply not true. Bernard Ingham had been working for Margaret Thatcher almost since the day she entered Downing Street. Every weekday morning, all the lobby journalists in Westminster were invited to Downing Street to be briefed by Bernard Ingham, and in the afternoon he went over to the House of Commons to brief them again.

The lobby rules were strict. No one was allowed to attribute anything said in these briefings to Ingham, or even to report that they happened at all. When Ingham's words were reported, they were attributed to anonymous "sources".

This secrecy was justified on the grounds that Ingham was a civil servant who was supposedly giving politically neutral information to ensure that government policy was properly understood. Actually, it was becoming well known that he did much more than that. There were various notorious examples, of which the one that did the most lasting damage was the briefing Ingham gave on the morning after Sir Geoffrey Howe had been transferred from his job as Foreign Secretary and given the honorary title of Deputy Prime Minister. Any journalist who entered the room imagining that this was a briefing about the promotion of a long-serving minister knew differently after they had heard Ingham say that the title of Deputy Prime Minister had no constitutional significance. A year later, the humiliated Sir Geoffrey took his revenge by delivering the speech that brought Margaret Thatcher down.

By then, Ingham's partisan activities were so well known that when The Independent was launched in 1986, its political staff refused to be briefed by him, choosing to write about him instead. The Guardian also broke with the lobby system, and it was a Guardian leader in November 1988 which first provocatively described Ingham as "the Prime Minister's chief spin doctor" – probably the first time this term had ever been used in print to describe a British citizen.

For several years, newspapers and broadcasters had also been reporting that Peter Mandelson was very good at the job he did at Labour Party headquarters, without making it clear what exactly that job was. He impressed Prince Charles, who called him "the red rose man", in the apparent belief that his main contribution to the politics of the 1980s had been the new red rose logo that had recently appeared on Labour publications. It was not until late in 1989, when Mandelson had given notice that he was leaving party headquarters to become an MP, that all the commentators, all at once, started calling him a spin doctor.

Spin or spin-doctoring was not invented or introduced to these shores by New Labour – and certainly not by Alastair Campbell, who did not get into this line of work until Tony Blair took over the Labour leadership in 1994. But New Labour, under Tony Blair, were unique in that they thought it a good idea to advertise that they were using spin.

While Ingham always tried to keep out of the public eye and to this day denies that he was ever a spin doctor, Campbell, Gordon Brown's spinner Charlie Whelan, and others, went in front of the cameras to publicise their own activities. Their reasoning was that they needed to get away from the image of the Labour Party as a well-meaning shambles and demonstrate that it had become a disciplined organisation, more ruthlessly efficient in the art of politics than the Conservatives. They allowed New Labour to become synonymous with "spin", a reputation that lingered long after the first wave of celebrated spin doctors had gone their separate ways.

Meanwhile, in opposition, the Conservatives got better and better at doing what New Labour had once been famous for. David Cameron had a Rolls-Royce of a spin machine working for him when he was running for the Conservative leadership in 2005, and so far, it has held together under the strain of government, despite the slow-burning fuse which finally set off an explosion under Andy Coulson's desk.

But from the start, the Cameron operation has learnt from New Labour's mistakes. Generally they operate by being polite rather than aggressive, restrained in what they say about Cameron's opponents, and they keep out of the public eye.

And that, probably, is the future of spin-doctoring. It will always continue, but the public will not see or hear from the people doing it, and if a spin doctor finds that he cannot keep his name out of the news – as Andy Coulson struggled but failed to do – then it is time to quit.