Lance Price: Feeding the hungry beast

Most of the time I found myself spending more time politely declining to spin our stories for the media than actually doing it
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The Independent Online

Until I joined Alastair Campbell's team in the No 10 press office I'd seen spin only from the other side, as a recipient. Those were the days, hard though it is to imagine now, when New Labour still had a reasonably happy and productive relationship with the BBC, my former employers. Tony Blair had been Prime Minister for little over a year, and "spin" was not yet a dirty word, let alone the clichéd and misleading shorthand for all the Government's sins, real or imagined, that it has since become.

Naively, I cut the heading, "Spin and Win", from one of Mystic Meg's columns in The Sun, and proudly stuck it over my desk. Things were on the turn, however, and by the time I left after the 2001 election the cutting had long since yellowed and been taken down.

The warning signs had started when Gordon Brown's attempt to portray three years' cumulative increase in health and education spending as an extra £40bn - just about credible intellectually - hadn't washed with the commentators. Spin, which had been such a valuable tool in opposition was about to become an obsession not just for Labour's political opponents but for the media too, all of them frustrated that they couldn't find any other stick with which to beat a government that was still beating all records for popularity.

Within a year, we were all conscious of weighing up whether the political cost of trying to spin a story was greater than the benefits that the techniques were supposed to deliver. Even if, for the most part, they were techniques that the Tories had themselves used in government.

The most obvious of these was the timing of major announcements. Was New Labour the first government to think of unveiling a fresh policy on the day most favourable to it? Of course it wasn't. Did the Conservatives never think of giving a bit of advance warning to selected journalists in order to get a story off on the right foot? They were at it all the time. Even, horror of horrors, timing some good news with a bit of bad news in the hope that the former would overshadow the latter. The Tories did the same on those rare occasions that they could find any good news at all to announce.

New Labour did not invent spin. It was just that Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and Charlie Whelan were better at it than their predecessors had been.

And, lest we forget, the same journalists who came to condemn the Blair government of spinning out of control were more addicted to spin than we were. I lost count of the number of times when journalists, who would freely join the pack in criticising us for spin, would call me at No 10, asking if their newspaper couldn't get a few more of the juicy stories they thought were being handed out elsewhere.

A media culture in which every newspaper in the land feels it has to have, or pretend to have, as many "exclusives" as it can is spin-doctor heaven. Most of the time I found myself spending more time politely declining to spin our stories than actually doing it. Spin is demand-driven, and would have dried up long ago if there was a single journalist alive capable of saying: "No, thank you, I'll wait for the official announcement."

And, amid all the ill-informed waffle in the press about Campbell's methods, it's worth pointing out that if I ever suggested that we say X or Y about a particularly difficult story, his first question would be: "Is it true?" Good political communication has no room for untruths because they always get found out, usually sooner rather than later, and damage only the people who utter them.

What Alastair demanded of us all was stories, stories and more stories. Why? Because he knew the media's demand for them was insatiable, and if we weren't providing them, then our enemies would be. And if some of those stories bore more than a little resemblance to stories the papers had been given before, well, they didn't have to run them.

The relentless demand for stories did cause problems, however. We at No 10 had only a finite number of our own to offer to our hungry customers. For the rest we had to go to individual government departments. I have no doubt that they felt under pressure constantly to come up with new announcements and new angles because I was among those putting the pressure on them. And, equally, I've no doubt that, as a result, some "news" that wasn't quite as new as it seemed was passed on to the papers. It may have been demand-led but it was clearly counter-productive in the end.

The problem that Alastair Campbell's successor, David Hill, must now grapple with is how to carry on feeding the hungry beast now that it has turned angry, and is liable to take half the arm off the person offering it the sustenance that it demands.

He will need help before he can hope to succeed in that near-impossible task. The media must be prepared to admit their responsibility for the feeding frenzy. Everyone involved needs to accept that good political communication is very often healthy for democracy, rather than bad for it. And the Government must be willing to recognise that sometimes no announcement at all is better than one that's either over-heated or under-cooked.

Lance Price was Labour's communications director and a former BBC political correspondent