Spin doctors heading for a dizzy demise

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OK, BEFORE he actually starts the column, I thought I would just have a few words with you, off the record, about . . .

Who are you?

I'm the columnist's spin doctor . . .

His what?

It's an idea imported from politics. These days, before and after political leaders give a speech, a gang of (usually) young (usually) men secretly tells the press what they are going to say or what they meant when they said it. The columnist wants to give it a try himself. But don't quote me on that.

Right. I'm with you now. OK, is this the most important column of his career?

A lot of people are saying that here. Certainly, it's going to contain more of what he really believes than most columns.

So, it's a very personal column?

Very much so. Purely for background, the idea for this column came to him when he was attending the Labour and Conservative party conferences in the past two weeks. He was amazed by the sheer number of these so- called 'spin doctors' hanging around the press rooms before and after the leaders' speeches. He resolved then to make a clear and unequivocal statement on the subject.

Will he be explaining the history of the spin doctor?

Right there on the first page. The line is that spin doctors became common during the Eighties, initially in the United States. They were brought in to treat senility. For a long time, the main purpose of their work was to explain away verbal mistakes made by President Ronald Reagan. Indeed, they introduced a new verb to the language, 'misspoke', as in: 'The president mis-spoke when he said that.'

Sir Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher's press secretary, is often regarded as the first serious English practitioner of the genre, but he was strictly more of a spin grave-digger, quietly informing the press about which ministers were up and down in the leader's estimation. Mrs Thatcher's speeches were generally explicit - indeed, infamously so - on policy matters. The classic spin doctor - the provider of invisible footnotes to speeches and policy - was, in Britain, an invention of Peter Mandelson under Neil Kinnock's leadership, and has been enthusiastically adopted by the Major and Blair regimes.

Does the columnist have a view about why that happened?

Oh, yes. The Big Idea of his article will be that a recent British political phenomenon has been what might be called 'leadership by nudge and wink'.

Messrs Kinnock and Major were both nervous of a section of their parties - the Labour left and Tory right - and so tended towards rhetorical generalities, which their staffs would then encourage journalists to interpret in a particular way. Tony Blair began with the same problem.

The 1994 party conference season was in many ways the apotheosis of the spin doctor. The biggest stories to emerge from the leaders' speeches - Mr Blair's dumping of Clause IV and Mr Major's abandonment of Thatcherism - were not spelt out in either text. Shadowy spokesmen told journalists afterwards that this was what was going on. Spin doctors flourish in factionalised parties.

So he thinks spin doctors are a bad idea?

He doesn't actually say that. But he does tell a couple of stories. Take Mr Major's 'back to basics' difficulties earlier this year, when he kept losing junior ministers to sexual scandals. This resulted from the interpretation of his speech at last year's party conference as a moral crusade. Some columnists carefully examined the speech and found no reference there to sexual morality. This was true but irrelevant. After a pre-speech briefing by Tim Collins, Mr Major's young chief spin doctor, many journalists believed that a moral crusade was planned. His spin spun out of control.

That story sounds as if it's pretty hostile to spin doctors?

It could be read like that. Look, the columnist understands that there are always going to be off-the-record briefings in politics. He appreciates, too, that, like batsmen, some journalists play spin better than others. Some are perfectly capable of knocking it out of the ground. He just finds comical a situation in which a one-hour speech by a political leader comes to exist not in its public delivery but in its private interpretation.

And with such a number of spin doctors - an 'internal market', as they say in the NHS these days - there is always the risk of people receiving different opinions. Last Friday in Bournemouth, for example, one Tory consultant was briefing that Mr Major had written his speech on his own; another that the ageing boulevardier Sir Ronald Millar had been called in to add some gags.

Even with consistency of treatment, there is an obvious danger of abuse of the National Spin Service. Some talented journalists have become hypochondriacs, running to a spin doctor for the slightest little paragraph, whereas, in the past, they would merely have lit another cigarette and got on with it. Spin doctors are able to play on the morbid fear that all journalists have of missing the story.

For the political parties, a danger clearly exists of a reaction against the kind of intensive- care treatment offered by, in particular, Labour's spin doctors. Alistair Campbell, now Mr Blair's chief practitioner of this discipline, behaved during the party conference rather like a spin witch-doctor, thundering curses over the heads of reporters who had displeased him. Mr Campbell should perhaps remember that, in this kind of work, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Does the column end with a prediction for the future?

Yes. The columnist doesn't see the trend as dangerous. Its direct effect on democracy can be judged by the fact that Mr Kinnock, Britain's first Sultan of Spin, lost two elections. And the Sun, for example, notably failed to buy the off-the-peg interpretation of Mr Major's speech, which was being touted around Bournemouth on Friday, though other papers did take the steer. Mr Blair, at least, should soon be able to say what he really means to his party. And there will almost inevitably be a natural reaction against spinning. The columnist thinks we are soon going to see a movement of homeopathic political editors and columnists, who prefer to listen to their own bodies.

OK, I hope that's helped you. I would have thought the line about journalists becoming hypochondriacs, running to a spin doctor for the slightest little paragraph, would probably be the sound-bite. But we'd better leave it there, because the column is about to begin.