My Daily Express colleague, Peter Hitchens, who blames PR for destroying
politics as we know it, is an endearing chap. He used to knock me about
a bit in the Lobby when I was in No 10.
He is no worse for his old fashioned values. He believes in honesty, the
family, self-reliance and an eye for an eye. And he delights, during
elections and when IRA front man Gerry Adams is on the dazzle, in
personally confronting politicians with their hypocrisies. Currently, he
is trying to dig up the political past of Cherie Blair, the Labour
leader’s wife, with his customary zeal.
But, like all enthusiasts, Mr Hitchens tends to zoom into orbit. He has
got lost in space over a PRO’s role in politics. He has a point in
claiming that spin doctors try to impose their angle on stories. Their
function is to put the best public presentation on their principal’s
position. They are not there to damage their client, although they will
if their presentation stretches credibility.
No spokesman or adviser has a monopoly of the media. Many others
assiduously peddle their own line. A PRO can thus be seen as an agent of
the truth in offering an authoritative version of it. Sensible
journalists recognise this and, depending on their PRO’s track record,
will be more or less comforted by his guidance. But however comfortable
they feel with it, they will always test it with other informants. They
have also built in a protection against the rogue briefer. They will
quote him as a source close to his principal, if not directly. Mr
Hitchens thus falls for the propaganda of self-publicists among PROs.
They are less influential than they pretend because of the checks and
balances in our politics.
But he becomes frankly incredible when he suggests that, if PR people
had not branched out from promoting new fragrances and over-rated novels
into politics, there might still be ‘real, live election campaigns with
proper debates, genuine hecklers and a chance to see their would-be
leaders not as they would like to be seen but as they are’. Bunkum and
balderdash. Has he never heard of television? It is TV, with its
audience of millions, not PROs which has blighted politics as we knew
them, killing the political meeting and emasculating free ranging debate
by its preoccupation with structured, fast-moving conflict rather than
the measured ventilation of issues.
This is not to mention journalism’s obsession with an individual’s TV
image, mannerisms, demeanour and how often she crossed her legs rather
than with the clash of ideas. If we had never heard of PROs before, TV
would have invented them as politicians’ minders. Mr Hitchens confuses
cause and effect.
Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express