Opinion: News Analysis - Has Campbell left No 10 spinning out of control? - Tony Blair’s press secretary may have chosen to assume a lower personal profile, but he has already set the course for No 10’s communications style

Those who accuse New Labour of putting more spin on information than Pete Sampras does on a second serve had their view reconfirmed last week.

Those who accuse New Labour of putting more spin on information

than Pete Sampras does on a second serve had their view reconfirmed last

week.



A leaked memo detailed a request by Alastair Campbell for individual

departments to provide two ’substantial news stories’ a week on the

Government’s ’core message’ for dissemination over the summer

recess.



This highlights two related points: one, a perceived politicisation of

the supposedly neutral civil service; and two, the role of spin in this

Government.



Ironically, the Prime Minister’s press secretary - the chief target for

the ire of the ’anti-spin’ camp - has largely withdrawn from lobby

briefings, to be replaced by deputy press secretary Godric Smith.



Although Smith was unavailable for comment, his office described

suggestions of potential Labour bias as ’complete nonsense’. Kevin

Maguire, chief reporter of the Guardian, thinks Smith is ’well-liked and

respected, considered to be honest and straightforward’.



Having said that, Maguire thinks any journalist believing that the way

the Government presents its news is ’straight’ PR, pure and simple, is

kidding themselves ’unless they are blind, deaf and dumb’. In other

words, Labour spins.



But what is new in all this? Anthony Bevins, political editor of the

Daily Express, has been working in Westminster since 1970. Every

government he has reported on has attempted to put a spin on

information, he said.



’They’ve all tried it. But this Government is much more systematic and

professional at it.’



The practice was certainly alive and well long before Blair entered No

10. ’There is no doubt that Bernard Ingham used to operate a similar

system but not so systematically,’ Bevins maintains.



Unsurprisingly, Ingham, PR Week columnist and former press secretary to

Margaret Thatcher, disagrees. ’Everyone seeks to excuse Campbell on the

grounds of me and it’s not on. The media have allowed themselves to be

bullied, stitched up.’



Maguire thinks this may be protesting a bit much: ’Ingham wasn’t as

neutral as he pretends,’ he said. However, he is quick to point out the

differences between then and now. ’But he also wasn’t a party creature

like Campbell is.’



Ingham agrees that there has been a fundamental change from his days in

the job. Campbell has ’a deliberately abrasive and contemptuous

relationship with the press,’ he said. ’This Government has ushered in

an unprecedented period of favouritism, a period where leaking is

mandatory.’



Peter MacMahon, political editor of the Mirror, is unimpressed. ’If

journalists are worried about spin, they don’t have to write the

story.’



And it is not only journalists who need to be on their guard. One

political correspondent suggested that the recent leak was an example of

an unknown civil servant deciding that the memo had crossed a line

between Government service and propaganda. ’The civil service is

immensely protective of what it does and doesn’t do,’ he said.



But drawing that line is difficult. Ingham’s inside knowledge of the

Department of Energy, for example, meant he was able to advise Margaret

Thatcher on what he saw as the department’s complacency towards the

prospect of a miners’ strike. Is this civil service politicisation or

simply a sensible use of professional knowledge?



’You’re not there to bring the Government down.’ Equally, the press

secretary is not there to hand out stories to pet hacks, Ingham

explains.



Bevins agrees. ’A much more insidious process for journalism is the

selected handout of ’stories’ to favoured correspondents.’



Even so, politicians and their press representatives need to be careful,

he reckons. ’There is always the danger that hacks will turn on you,

they are a very volatile breed. Complicity always has limits.’



Journalists may be laughing, but the PR industry has suffered from the

Campbell debate, PRCA chairman Tom Watson believes.



The association’s last report on the subject said: ’The activities of

spin doctors continue to severely tarnish the overall image of PR.’



Watson explains this unequivocal statement: ’They often shape the

perception of your client or employer that you can control the media -

but it’s a one-sided approach to news distribution, a rather old

fashioned sort of PR. You can only spin once - the more you try, the

less your reputation is maintained.’



However adept you are, the consensus is that spin can reach a point

where it becomes counter-productive. Bevins agreed: ’I think the

Government has acknowledged that it has spun too far. The profile of

Alastair Campbell has been reduced - which is not to say his power has

reduced. Powerful people don’t like to be seen.’



Indeed, Campbell may have removed himself from some of the limelight but

he will be far from invisible over the coming months. For a start, the

BBC is due to broadcast a fly-on-the-wall documentary about him

soon.



Also, if the Government really was planning to get two ’positive’

stories a week out of departments during the dead period of August and

September, it may have to think again. MacMahon might well be right when

he says: ’All governments try over the lean summer months to get good

news stories.’ But the last thing New Labour needs now is to get badly

burnt during a long, hot summer of spin.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.