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
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
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.