The Drum Awards for Marketing - Entry Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

Spin Doctors

By The Drum | Administrator

August 14, 2003 | 10 min read

Tattered and torn: a less than happy Alastair Campbell who is at the centre of the Hutton inquiry

As The Hutton Inquiry begins to call its first witnesses, the role of spin doctors, sorry political advisors, is again in the spotlight. The Drum asks three political editors what they think of the damage done to the Government by spin and what the future holds for spin doctoring?

Just three weeks ago The Guardian asked bookmaker Ladbrokes – who had just suspended betting on whether or not Alistair Campbell would step down before the end of the year – to give odds on who would take the place of Campbell after he bowed out.

Tom Kelly, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, was the hot favourite (5-4). Three weeks later and calls for Kelly’s resignation have already been made following his Walter Mitty claims.

Second favourite, according to Ladbrokes, David Hill (2-1) – a figure who would be well-suited to fall in line with calls for an end to spin – is now being touted by the press as the most likely to take the role left vacant by the out-going Campbell.

The calls for “an end to spin and off-the-record briefings” follow recent months that have seen Alastair Campbell’s profile rise to unprecedented heights after the debacle that was Carole Caplin and now, more dramatically, with the current stand-off between the Government and the BBC over the inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly and Iraq’s alleged WMD.

According to data from media monitoring firm Presswatch Media, Campbell – Tony Blair’s director of strategy and communications - received a personal record of 1,194 mentions in the national press last month, more than the collective total for the entire previous 12 months.

As The Drum goes to press, Alistair Campbell will still be whispering in Blair’s ear whilst lambasting the lugs of journalists across the country.

But with the departure of Blair’s most trusted confidante seemingly just around the corner, The Drum asks three of Scotland’s leading political editors – Lindsay McGarvie of the Sunday Mail, Hamish Macdonell of the Scotsman and Douglas Fraser of the Sunday Herald – their views on the relationship between the press and the Government and if the relationship will recover post-Campbell.

Hamish Macdonell, Political editor at the Scotsman

1)Will it ever be possible to rebuild the relationship between the government and the media? And what are the barriers to this being done successfully?

Yes, it can. Trust takes a long time to build up and not much time to knock down. It can easily be built up again with a new team in charge of the operation at Number Ten but it will take time. The main barrier is suspicion over the people and the methods involved. New people should mean new methods, but not necessarily. What is needed is both new people and new methods, and time.

2)Post Campbell will there be a less hysterical relationship with the press?

That depends on who takes over. If it is David Hill, as many suppose, it should be calmer and less bullying, which should help.

3)Is the fourth estate now the official opposition to the party in power? ie can the press really hold the power to throw a government?

The press can have the power to uproot a government. Look at Watergate in America and, to a lesser extent, the removal of Henry McLeish in Scotland. The press and the BBC are acting like the official Opposition in the absence of a strong Tory party but I don't think this is entirely healthy. The press should be able to start major stories going but it should be up to the politicians to follow them through.

4)What does it take to be good political adviser? Is it to be open and honest with the press or a shield between the politicians and the press?

Trust and confidence. The political adviser needs to be trusted by both press and politicians. By the press, that he/she will be available to help them out when necessary, and by politicians, that the adviser can speak in their name and not get anything wrong. They also need confidence to talk off the record and steer journalists the right way without worrying about being hauled up by their political advisers. They also need a thick skin and an ability to prevent themselves from becoming the story.

5)When the spin-doctor is involved directly in the news, is it possible from him/her to function to the best of their ability?

No. Campbell has shown that.

Douglas Fraser, Political editor at the Sunday Herald

1)Will it ever be possible to rebuild the relationship between the government and the media? And what are the barriers to this being done successfully?

Of course there will be a relationship. The question is what its characteristics will be. It will never be the same again, which is not necessarily a bad thing. What matters in a new type of relationship is how much each side learns from the past. The Government is better equipped to learn lessons than the media, which is particularly bad at mature reflection on its role in politics and government.

2)Post Campbell will there be a less hysterical relationship with the press?

Probably. He has done little to discourage the Westminster lobby from turning him into a household name, making it all the easier to demonise him. It seems unlikely any replacement would volunteer for such a high profile. The Government would do well to learn lessons from the time when Campbell previously removed himself from daily briefings, and less well known civil servants took over that role. That calmed things down considerably. A parallel move was made in the Scottish Executive when Jack McConnell became First Minister – and, while it made for less exciting headlines, it also made for better government and more measured, accurate reporting of it.

3)Is the fourth estate now the official opposition to the party in power? ie can the press really hold the power to throw a government?

That argument is overdone. Yes, the Opposition is weak, but that doesn't, in itself, make the media strong. The danger to the Government from the media is not being “overthrown”, as you almost put it, but to contribute to, and fuel, a public mood which is increasingly anti-politician and anti-politics. The risk is that politics becomes undermined, that parties struggle to function, that low turnout damages legitimacy, and the necessary trust between governed and government, elected and electorate, is diminished so far that the system ceases to function properly.

4)What does it take to be good political adviser? Is it to be open and honest with the press or a shield between the politicians and the press?

I'm not so sure about political advisers in general, who have a variety of different roles, some of them a long way from media relations. As for those who deal with the media, the key thing is to know not only his or her boss's policies, but to know their mind, and to have sufficient trust placed in them to be able to speak on their behalf. That is what works for Campbell. The same can be said, for instance, of Kevin Pringle, spokesman for Alex Salmond and one of the best spin doctors – in that he is accessible and hard-working, recognises the job the media has to do, does not seek to bully, knows his boss’s mind and SNP policy extraordinarily well, and keeps the limelight on his boss rather than on himself. It ought to be the case that a spin doctor's legitimate dual role is to deal with the practicalities of handling the media's requirements for access to the politician and to advise that politician on how to present him/herself.

5)When the spin-doctor is involved directly in the news, is it possible from him/her to function to the best of their ability?

Campbell was right in arguing that when the spin doctor becomes the story, it's time to go.

Lindsay McGarvie, Political editor at the Sunday Mail

1)Will it ever be possible to rebuild the relationship between the government and the media? And what are the barriers to this being done successfully?

The Blair Government will never enjoy the kind of relationship with the media that it did after the 1997 election. Getting rid of a bully boy like Alastair Campbell will help. But Downing Street must ditch the off-the-record briefings altogether and adopt a more honest and cautious approach if they are ever going to be trusted by the press, never mind voters.

2)Post Campbell will there be a less hysterical relationship with the press?

Only if Downing Street radically overhauls its press operation to ensure that we can believe every word that is briefed to us. Blair must not look for a Campbell clone as head of communications. If they do that, the relationship will always be fraught. New Labour needs to understand that it can't control the agenda on an hour-to-hour basis and end the macho posturing that has become its trademark.

3)Is the fourth estate now the official opposition to the party in power? ie can the press really hold the power to throw a government?

Journalists have effectively been the only Opposition to New Labour since 1997, due to the weakness of the Tories. It is no coincidence that opinion polls have been at their most competitive for some time in the middle of the publicity surrounding the Kelly affair and the WMD crisis. We've got the Government on the ropes right now, but there still aren't many commentators who would suggest that New Labour will lose the 2005 election.

4)What does it take to be good political adviser? Is it to be open and honest with the press or a shield between the politicians and the press?

Depends on your definition of good. I want exclusive access to the thoughts of senior politicians, and if that means dealing with a spin doctor then so be it. I hate to admit this, though, but the best political advisers are those who speak on the record. You have to share that story with the rest of the pack, but at least you know where you stand with them, as they can't deny the story that they spun off the record two days previously.

5)When the spin-doctor is involved directly in the news, is it possible from him/her to function to the best of their ability?

These are fallible human beings we are dealing with. The evidence suggesting that they can't operate at their best when they are plastered across the papers is overwhelming, from Jo Moore to Tom Kelly. Tom Kelly works for Alastair Campbell, no stranger to starring in negative stories himself. That Kelly could come out with the Walter Mitty line shows that Campbell has become semi-detached in the day-to-day running of No 10. At least Charlie Whelan had the good sense to get out when the press rounded on him.

Trending

Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +