FEATURE: Has Blair left a legacy of spin?

Tony Blair's press machine took government media relations to a new level. In the week that Blair leaves Downing Street, Charles Lewington and Lance Price reflect on what he has left behind.

YES

Charles Lewington, MD of Hanover, ex-press secretary to John Major and former executive editor of the Sunday Express...

Like the association between sleaze and the Conservatives in the 1990s, New Labour has become synonymous with the darker arts of media manipulation. But are these accusations just part of the dodgy dossier of disgruntlement voiced by right-wing politicians and journalists who, in their time, have been eager recipients of well-packaged stories?

Some people argue that spin was merely the next phase in the evolution of government communications in the final quarter of the 20th century – from abrasive Joe Haines to the robust Bernard Ingham. What was ­different under Tony Blair was a style of fast-footed ‘ducking and weaving’ PR pioneered by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s energetic PR man in 1992. Instant rebuttal and communication grids were here to stay.

These techniques helped to propel New Labour to power, but when applied to government, they had three unplanned – and lasting – effects:

01. Hype and spin caused a mismatch in public expectations.

02. The country is deeply cynical about government announcements.

03. Civil service communicators have been downgraded to tools of political media advisors.

The problem is that New Labour was created as a campaigning organisation, not a governing party. Its priority in each of its three terms has been winning the next. In their first term, Labour spin doctors were slow to understand that administration required changes to the modus operandi that had got the party elected in the first place. Sleights of hand may have worked ­during elections, but they were exposed during the long, hard grind that is a term of office.

Because the civil service machine had served the Tories for 18 years, the party assumed that many civil service PROs were enemies of the regime – regardless of their talent or integrity – and disposed of too much experience. In times of crisis, Downing Street tended to trust only its own – Alastair Campbell’s Iraq ‘internet’ dossier showed how dangerous such an attitude can be.

Alastair Campbell, Lord Philip Gould and Peter Mandelson had a ­brilliant ­understanding of how to mani­pulate the media, and Blair was the once-in-a-generation ‘presentational politician’. But when Campbell was used to order senior ministers to clean up their private lives (as in the case of Robin Cook), it merely reinforced the view that the PR man was more important than, say, the chief whip.

In his recent ‘feral beasts’ speech, Blair bemoaned the relentless nature of the media cycle and journalists’ obsession with cock-ups and scapegoats. While I don’t disagree with his thesis, he conveniently overlooks his own role in creating a monster to whom lying and ­evasion became a regular expediency – a fact confirmed on many occasions by (frequently supportive) journalists angered at being duped.

In defending spin, Labour politicians insist that the end justified the means. One cabinet minister said to me: ‘We won three elections – and that is what matters.’ It is now accepted that restoring trust in government is vital to the future of this country, as well as the fortunes of Gordon Brown.

We have moved too far towards the US system, where the President picks his own administration to revive the old ways. Like it or loathe it, spin is here to stay. There are signs that Brown is already trying to present himself as the antidote to spin. Likewise, for all David Cameron’s attacks on the spin culture, it is telling that he has spent so long trying to recruit (and has recently appointed) his own ‘Campbell’.

I sometimes wonder whether we PR professionals should start caring more about the standards of political and government communication that can bring our profession into disrepute. There are ethical standards for MPs, peers, cabinet ministers, company dir­ectors, lobbyists, government contractors and lawyers, but none for those individuals who dance on the head of a pin in the name of government communications. But then maybe there’s no one more discredited – or spinned against – than an old spinner who repents.

NO

Lance Price, former Labour Party comms director and author of The Spin Doctor’s Diary...

As Tony Blair hands over power to Gordon Brown, commentators have sought to sum up his legacy with a four-letter word. For many, it was ‘Iraq’, for others, it was ‘spin’.

The latter argument is an easy one to make, but downgrading the Blair years to little more than ‘spin’ is lazy, puerile analysis.

Before these words are rejected as yet more spin on behalf of my old boss, let me say that it is more than six years since I was paid to help bolster the Prime Minister’s image. Since then, I have never hesitated to criticise eit her Tony Blair or his government.

I have also been honest about the ­excesses and occasional deceits of the media operation I was part of in Tony Blair’s first term.

Mr Blair conceded in his speech to Reuters earlier this month, that ‘we paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging and persuading the media’. Indeed we did. And, as he also accepted, in doing so we helped to encourage a much more cynical relationship between politicians and the media.

Is this is why a prime minister who assumed office with press eating out of his hands, leaves with the same press biting the hands that fed it so richly?

The reality is that there was fault on both sides.

Journalists who have been too happy to be on the receiving end of stories from the government now claim that nothing said on behalf of Blair or his ministers could ever be believed.

But Labour was wrong to import into government the hugely successful techniques of media relations that served it so well when Tony Blair was leader of the opposition. When you aspire to power, what you say is what counts. When you’re in power, it is what you do that you will
be judged by.

Alastair Campbell, for whom I once deputised, liked to say that New Labour was ‘more spinned against than spinning’. What he meant was that if people wanted to find distortion, exaggeration or even fabrication about the government’s record or behaviour, they should look to what the media was putting out rather than what the Number Ten press office was putting out.

On the subject of Alastair Campbell, it is important to note that many of the reforms he introduced to the government communications service were absolutely right and long overdue.

The modern media could no longer be fed by a system that had evolved in a less demanding and more leisurely age. Gordon Brown and David Cameron may both promise ‘an end to spin’, but they will both ensure that they use strategic communications to plan announ­cements. They will demand a press office that can respond 24 hours a day. Indeed, as more news is consumed ­online and as the media continues to fragment and diversify, whoever is in power will need new ways to keep up.

In fact, it is the pace of today’s news organisations that is a major part of the problem. Every story has to appear online or live on TV and radio as quickly as possible. There is less time for reflection and serious consideration. Instant comment is the norm. We have become used to having stories analysed and commented upon even before they have happened.

This leads to absurd over-­simplifications, such as ‘Tony Blair’s legacy is all spin’.

Blair is the first prime ­minister in my lifetime to leave office without being tarnished by an economic ­crisis, civil or industrial unrest, mass unemployment, currency deval­uation or public spending cuts.

Nobody would claim that the government has achieved everything it set out to do, or that everything it has done has been a success. There have been huge disappointments and some terrible errors along the way. But peace in Northern Ireland? Hospital waiting times slashed? Record investment in schools? A minimum wage? Devolution that works? Near full employment? Civil partnerships? Economic growth every quarter? Millions lifted out of poverty?

That’s not spin. It is a legacy of which to be proud.

 

 

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.