In the end, this week’s much hyped Panorama on spin doctors was
distinctly thin on evidence that these ‘dark forces’ were a malign
influence on either politicians or the media - although it did highlight
the closeness of the relationship between the three sides.
Occasionally a journalist said they felt ‘used’, but most conceded that
they in turn were ‘using’ their sources to get a good story. Meanwhile
much was made of Labour leader Tony Blair asking a boring question in
Parliament so as not to upstage his own ‘Road to the Manifesto’ press
conference. But if that sensible piece of PR planning is the worst crime
that can be blamed on spin doctors then the nation’s voters can sleep
easy in their beds.
The other main charge was that spin doctors were bullies in their
dealings with political journalists. We were shown a BBC journalist
receiving a dressing down by phone, during which there was a bit of mild
sabre rattling on both sides. The journalist seemed irritated but
relatively unconcerned, as well he might. The blunt instruments of
threat and bluster sometimes deployed by PR folk can be annoying. But
show us a journalist who has never had a such a call, and we’ll show you
a reporter who has never written anything other than a regurgitated
press release. (Although even that is no guarantee that someone won’t
By the end, Panorama seemed to have wavered in its crusade. Almost the
last word was given to ITN’s political editor Michael Brunson who
scornfully dismissed the image of political journalists waiting
unquestioningly to ‘fill their notebooks at dictation speed’ with the
outpourings of spin doctors.
The truth of the matter is that journalists and spin doctors need each
other. Neither side is particularly ill served by this process, although
one or other may sometimes feel slightly bruised by the encounter.
The media may find spin distasteful but sensible journalists will
recognise that they helped to create it,. The tougher, more hungry media
that has evolved over the past few decades has helped produce a need for
spin doctors who can argue their side’s case more stridently.
Journalists pride themselves on being tough minded and persistent. Why
should they expect any less from those they seek to write about? Or as
one senior journalist turned corporate PR man succinctly put it on the
phone to PR Week this week: ‘Bollocks to those journalists who expect us
all to be either middle-aged men in bow ties or silly girls with Alice
bands offering them gin and tonics.’