News Analysis: Exaggeration of real-world spin

The former Department of Transport comms director has written an explosive debut novel, blowing the lid on Government spin doctors. Here, he explains why...

Journalism, PR, fiction: spot the connection. My career progression, from foreign correspondent to civil servant to novel-writer has sparked a few queries: Why write a novel? Is it based on real life?

Well, here are the answers. Spin is a novel - it says so on the cover.

Spin is fiction - it says so on every page. But that hasn't stopped some commentators (mainly political hacks) from believing they will find an encoded account of real events.

When they discover it is fiction - indeed, fiction of the most fantastical nature - they scratch their heads.

Some have persisted in treating the book as representing real life, despite the exaggerated thriller-cum-conspiracy-theory-cum-whodunit plot.

These are the commentators who insist on 'spotting' real people among the fictional characters, including some charmingly contradictory attempts to identify the same characters with wildly different people.

In fact, no character represents any real person. Other commentators, perhaps realising the absurdity of trying to make Spin into a roman-a-clef, have adopted a different approach.

These are the writers who have expressed their disappointment that Spin is not an account of real events after all.

From fact to fiction

One particular commentator even took me to task because he found the plot twists (the drugs, the violence, the blackmail, all the intricate conspiracies and all the turbulent political intrigue), too exaggerated and outlandish for him to believe that the events had happened in real life. I can only say well spotted: that's what fiction is for.

I don't mind people speculating about the novel, of course. It keeps the political chatterers in a job. But it is slightly distracting. It diverts attention away from the real points of the book.

So, what are they? First and foremost, the novel is (I hope) diverting and amusing. There are plenty of jokes in there, especially for readers who know a little bit about politics, PR and the media. It's a thriller and a whodunit. But it also has a serious point to make.

While no character represents any real person, they do all embody trends, ideas or issues in public life which seem to me to be of potential concern to a free, democratic society. Selwyn Knox, for example, the leading politician in the novel, is a hard-line, authoritarian Home Secretary type figure bent on cracking down on everything.

His mission is to wipe out bad behaviour in society and make us all better people. And he has a good smokescreen for his crackdowns: the fictional government he serves uses fear of a perceived terrorist threat to justify increasingly illiberal policies designed to restrict the personal freedoms of its citizens.

Now - I know what you're thinking - this may have an echo in real life.

When I hear our own Government saying it needs to abolish jury trials, suspend the presumption of innocence, introduce curfews and on-the-spot fines for teenagers, confiscate the children of failed asylum-seekers, or - the latest ruse - lock up friends and relatives of people who just may be suspected of having some link to extremist politics, I do think there are grounds for concern.

So, in the ancient tradition of British political satire, I have taken these trends and exaggerated them. The government in Spin, for instance, wants to control the way society behaves in the most intimate areas of human existence, to legislate for human nature, to control the way people think and act. And there are lots of amusing but alarming ways in which it attempts to do this. So, it's a novel of future dystopia. It's jokey and bantering, but it's also a serious warning of what might happen 'if'.

The decline of liberty

But why is the novel called Spin?

Because I am worried by the way in which the public, here and in the US, have largely failed to protest at the emergence of the new hard-line politics. We seem to have simply accepted that authoritarian policies are needed; that we need to get tougher on individual behaviour at home and tougher on misbehaving regimes abroad (mainly by invading them).

So, in the ancient traditions of British political satire, I have taken these worrying but embryonic trends and exaggerated them to extravagant, ludicrous extremes. The government in Spin, for instance, wants to control the way society behaves in the most intimate areas of human existence, to legislate for human nature, to control the way people think and act.

And there are lots of amusing but alarming ways in which it attempts to do this. We see what might happen if we don't protest. We see the potential results of the emerging trends. And we see the way 'spin' - or PR - can be used to make us believe that insidious, dangerous policies that damage civil liberties are quite reasonable.

It's this presentation of extreme policies as natural and desirable that worries me. For instance, when the Home Office made its announcement about confiscating the children of asylum-seekers, there was hardly a murmur.

The public basically said: 'Oh, yes, good idea. Why didn't we think of it before?'

That's because the spin the public are given on this type of measure is always that they are aimed 'at someone else'. You know: 'Don't worry, these tough new laws aren't aimed at you, good citizens of society: they're aimed at the bad guys we all hate.'

Well, I'm afraid I can't buy that. In my opinion, liberty is indivisible.

If we violate the civil liberties of one person, we damage the liberty of all.

So I would like readers to get to the end of the book and say: 'Thank God I can awake from the nightmare.' But I also want them to say: 'Let's do something now, while we still can, to make sure that nightmare never happens in reality.'

Spin is published by Macmillan in hardback at £16.99

Giving PR a bad name...

'In the months since New Project had come to power, sweeping Labour out of Downing Street, (they) had built a ferocious team and an equally ferocious reputation. Now Downing Street had become the most efficient, most revered and most feared PR outfit in the whole of Europe.

'Foreign governments sent their Charlie McDonald wannabes to study at the court of the master: to learn how carrots, sticks, black eyes, blackmail, saccharine and smears, seduction and schmooze can all be deployed to keep the Government at the top of the news agenda; how the media could be flattered or cowed into submission; how difficult journalists could be neutralised; and how inconvenient stories could be killed by kindness, by cunning or by cutting some bastard's balls off.

'It was Geoff Maddle who had become the most accomplished exponent of the last technique. He was Number Ten's fireman, dispatched to quell the flames of any hot news that looked in danger of singeing (Prime Minister) Andy Sheen's immaculate coat tails. His work was behind the scenes and all the more effective for it.

'Success for Maddle was when a story did not appear; when a dog did not bark. For him no news was most definitely good news. Let Charlie and the others do the clever stuff, plant the positive stories, manipulate the facts to make them fit the Government's preferred agenda, mould journalists and editors until it became second nature to them to know what Sheen wanted and to write it.

'Let Charlie get on with all that; Geoff was happy going out and twisting a few arms, stuffing a few mouths, keeping his nose and Sheen's arse as clean as possible.'

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