OPINION: How Blair rewrote the rules of political PR

The Tony Blair legacy is naturally big news this week, but whatever is said no one can dispute the fact that he changed all the rules for ­political PR.

Whelan: 'Like his boss, Campbell overstayed his welcome'
Whelan: 'Like his boss, Campbell overstayed his welcome'

If you doubt the PM’s contribution in this area,  you only need to look at David Cameron’s comms operation, which owes everything to Blair and New Labour. I well remember Tony Blair’s first, and in his view most important, appointment as newly elected Labour leader.  It wasn’t his shadow chancellor, but Alastair Campbell.  Before Blair we had hardly heard of spin-doctors; now even footballers have them, and ‘spin’ is part of the lexicon.

Both Brown and Blair had met Bill Clinton in America and brought his ideas home. The first of these was ‘rapid rebuttal’ and a special unit was set up in Labour’s HQ to rebut any misinformation put out by the Tories. Soon this unit had a database of everything the Tories had ever said. It was used to compile ‘attack’ dossiers.

Another innovation from Blair was ‘media monitoring’. Every word written or uttered by politicians was monitored by a Labour team. Broadcasters and hacks were harried at ­every opportunity if they were seen as ‘unhelpful’. It was even used to shut up dissident voices within Labour.

Discipline was to be the order of the day. Key messages were sent by pager (before text) to all ­Labour candidates and MPs. Nothing was left to chance, with a ‘grid’ developed to co-ordinate all announcements.

When I eventually went into the Treasury the whole press office had just one mobile phone between them, making decent communications impossible. Ironically the civil servants had done even less preparation for the Government information service. Blair was horrified by the civil ser­vants’ ineptitude and within a few years virtually every departmental head of information was gone. 

A new early morning meeting of all information heads was instigated to discuss the media strategy for the day and even the Prime Minister would sometimes turn up. Out went the ‘Downing Street sources’ and in came the ‘Prime Minister’s official spokesman’. The civil service blocked a more open on-the-record TV briefing from Campbell – something Tony Blair must regret. More openness may have helped prevent everything ­going wrong. It started with ‘a good day to bury bad news’ and ended with the ‘dodgy dossier’. Like his boss, Campbell overstayed his welcome and Labour became ‘the party of spin’. Still, three election victories isn’t bad and I bet even in retirement Tony Blair keeps his very own spin-doctor.
charlie.whelan@haymarket.com

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