Government by spin 

1 March 2002 tbs.pm/1805

Having been persuaded by the principal, who met him at a conference, the former political editor of ITN Michael Brunson visited Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, in January 2002 to talk about how political spin affects the media.

Michael Brunson at Hills Road Sixth Form College

The term ‘spin’ comes from baseball, where a spin-doctor would improve a pitcher’s technique. This slowly graduated through to American politics where media aides discovered that you could not only give out the facts, but put your own gloss on them, too.

The Conservatives in Britain then learned from the Americans. A long tradition in the Conservative Party was that all you needed to do was say and do the right things, and then the message would get through.

The Tories, however, were lulled into a false sense of security by a largely Tory press. New Labour were faced with a largely hostile press and for them spin was very useful. The government built a media strategy, regarding the presentation of policy almost as important as the policy itself. This was former journalist Alistair Campbell’s crucial role as Labour’s chief press officer.

Soon after the election in 1997, word from Labour at ITN was that Cherie Blair was giving parties for disadvantaged children in the Rose Garden of Number 10. Michael Brunson was Political Editor of ITN at the time, and took the decision to anchor that evening’s 5:40 news from the garden. After the successful broadcast, it emerged that these parties were no new thing – Mrs Major had been doing it for years. The whole release of news was simply spin by Labour – a publicity stunt.

A crucial point is raised though – spin works because the media are happy to accept it. They enthuse about stories of Cabinet rivalry, and having so-called ‘exclusives’ handed to them on plates by the spin-doctors. Radio 4 ‘s ‘Today’ programme is a prime example of this. Official leaks give the media scoops to brag about and the government gets its message across. Spin obviously works.

But does it? The spin will not work if it is divorced from reality. No one will believe stories of a wonderful NHS, nor of improvements on the railways after the Railtrack debacle.

After the election, Labour seemed to be giving up on the use of spin. Tony Blair had promised he would not practice it and that the party would mend it’s ways. Michael Brunson himself believed that the government had seen sense. He was wrong. The Strategic Rail Plan is one example, it promised no new money, and basically said nothing we didn’t know already. Nevertheless, the BBC decided to give a quarter of an hour of the Six O’Clock News and the 6 Briefing strand to the plan.

In the information age, the media does not stand back and take a good look at the actual news often enough. It is easier to simply take a government’s word for it. The danger is that the media gets as hooked on spin as the government.

The fiasco over the Department of Transport’s Martin Sixsmith as to whether he was sacked or resigned was a piece of spin uncovered and a sign of the media biting the hand that was feeding it.

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