COMMENT: Editorial; The case for spin doctors

So far the Northern Ireland peace talks have consisted of little more than background briefings and staged publicity of the corniest kind. There is good reason for that.

So far the Northern Ireland peace talks have consisted of little more

than background briefings and staged publicity of the corniest kind.

There is good reason for that.



The process of negotiation would become impossible to conduct if every

tentative comment and proposal were piped through the distorted

loudspeakers of the media. It needs quiet meetings away from the

pressure to perform for hard line supporters. (Even though the idea of

Ian Paisley having a quiet meeting with anyone sounds frankly

implausible.)



In the same way, the process of background briefing pejoratively

described as ‘spin’ provides a way of communicating ideas and opinions

without entrenching positions.



This week the Radio 4 Today programme has, with knowing irony, been

charting the decline of deference in British society. Ho ho, indeed. Fat

chance of deference showing its face for the 8.15am interview. No

morning is complete without some minister being forced to dance on the

head of a pin. No wonder MPs have become so deft at talking to the media

while saying very little.



Background briefings allow them to test new policies on the public, or

prepare the ground for bad news. It is a useful, but almost universally

loathed mechanism.



Even former Labour communications director Joy Johnson is crusading

against spin. Spin gets in the way of journalists digging for verifiable

facts and on the record quotes, she argues. Why, asks Johnson, do

journalists take it? The answer is because it is bound to consist of

juicier morsels than the meagre official fare. But also because the

briefer speaks with the authority of his master.



Spin may be one-sided, but it is inside information. Without it, and in

the absence of harder facts, journalists might resort to less well

informed sources. In other words the hunger of the media itself

encourages spin. You can’t put the genie back in its box.



Every PR person - and every journalist -knows the value of background

briefings. It is a perfectly proper mechanism for passing on

information, while allowing sources to avoid taking a definitive

position on sensitive matters prematurely.



As always, though, the system is open to abuse. It can also be used for

smearing enemies and spreading misinformation. But there is a built-in

safety valve - the relationship of trust between source and journalist.

You break that by supplying false information at your peril. If your

‘off the record’ briefing could not ultimately be endorsed in public by

your client or boss, you probably shouldn’t give it. For confidential

briefings can also be made very public indeed.



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