Tim Allan: Spin doctors are not as sinister, or as effective, as people think

From a speech by Tony Blair's former press secretary to the Labour History Group in the House of Lords
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The Independent Online

Clare Short told us this week that in our first term the problem was spin, endless announcements, exaggerations and media manipulation that undermined people's respect for the Government and trust in what we said. As someone described by her as a creature that lived in the dark, I want to give my perspective on how true that characterisation is.

The role of spin has been vastly exaggerated both by the party's supporters and its critics. To borrow Neil Kinnock's characterisation of Peter Mandelson, Labour spin doctors were not nearly as sinister as people thought they were, and not nearly effective as they thought they were.

What did we get right? We faced a largely hostile press up to 1992-94. Much of the Labour Party saw newspaper proprietors' hostility to the party as the root of the problem rather than a symptom of it. Tony Blair was baffled by the party's hostility towards the press, and was assiduous in making sure he got to know columnists, editors and proprietors well before he became leader. He thought there was a historic opportunity to capitalise on disaffection with the Tories and to win parts of the press round.

In opposition, strategy was twofold. There was a relentless effort to communicate change through the pages of the Mail, the Telegraph, and The Sun, backed by much tougher monitoring and rebuttal of inaccuracies, especially if mistakes were made by broadcasters.

What did we get wrong in government? In opposition we had become lightening fast in our response. But we had no experience of government press work and the different techniques that are needed. In government, such haste got us into trouble. When we moved fast to denounce the bonuses paid to Camelot directors, we did so before the policy implications of this strategy had been thought about.

So where do we stand now, six years into a Labour government? Spin is much less of an issue for a number of reasons. The Government has made an active effort to mend its ways. There are fewer selective briefings, more considered responses, fewer relaunches, much more direct communication from the PM, and acceptance that policies are what matters over the long term.