Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Speeach to Cardiff School of Journalism, Cardiff University 23.3.2006

Spin isn’t dead and it isn’t resting. It’s mutated; I think it has definitely changed here in the UK, morphed into something else, and the way spin is delivered by the government is much more subtle. There is still a gloss being put on what the government machine is saying but the publicists and propagandists of Tony Blair’s government have learned from the many mistakes of those who once resided in that hall of fame of British spin doctoring…Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Charlie Whelan, Jo Moore et al. The bullying and hectoring which you see depicted in the BBC comedy The Thick of It -- which is done in a fly on the wall style and where much of the action takes place in Alastair Campbell’s lair in Downing Street -- is very perceptive but rather out of date.

The news media is now far more hostile to the Blair government than it was a few years ago at the height of Alastair Campbell’s power and that hostility means that the bullying and cajoling which New Labour could previously get away with is much too counter productive to be worth it. Another important factor is that journalists are no longer in awe of the Blair government, which many of them were initially. They no longer feel they must please the new government or otherwise they will be squeezed out and wont get access. So instead we have seen the spin doctors learn new tricks, they are far more accomplished at marketing themselves in a crowded media market place and in getting out the information which they want to promote.

Whereas many of the highly-alarming scenarios about electing Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister have tended to bounce back ineffectually, there is one narrative that could have a deadly impact on his political future.

His much-publicised appearance on the front cover of GQ, an upmarket men’s magazine, opened up a developing story line that could be seriously destabilising for a party leader who is admired by legions of young activists.

In describing the control freakery that went on behind the scenes for GQ’s photo-shoot, the editor, Dylan Jones, had no hesitation in depicting Corbyn as being out of his depth, being pushed around by his gate-keepers like a “benign grandfather for the family Christmas photograph”.

Younger members of GQ’s editorial team, who had been inspired by Corbyn’s rock-star image, said they regretted having seen him in person. They found him “underwhelming...they said they wished they had not met him”.

In contrast to the character assassination of Tory tabloids such as the Daily Mail and Sun, and their depiction of Corbyn as a terrorist sympathiser, the Jihadists’ friend, here is a narrative that is live, rather than historic.

David Cameron’s choice of the word “purred” said it all: a Bullingdon Club posh boy at his most patronising, boasting about his conversation with the Queen.

The Prime Minister should have needed no reminding of the danger of loose talk in the vicinity of radio and television microphones.

John Major’s condemnation of the “bastards”, like Gordon Brown’s tirade against that “bigoted woman”, at least had the merit of being expressions of anger and frustration.

Cameron’s gaffe was of an entirely different order: here he was sneakily revealing – and almost taking the credit for – the Queen’s pleasure at the result of the Scottish referendum, a breach of the royal confidentiality that Prime Ministers were respecting long before he was even born.

Ed Miliband could hardly have done any more to damage his battered reputation for fiscal competence than to have admitted he didn’t mention the economy at his last party conference before the election because the content of his speech was delivered “from memory, and some from the top of my head”.

Political journalists are sometimes accused of stretching a point when they try to argue that history is repeating itself. But the plight of David Cameron does have uncanny similarities with the fate of John Major almost twenty years ago.

Then as now the politics of the Conservative Party were being driven by the Tory Euro-sceptics’ demand for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Back in the 1990s, during the long haul to the general election of 1997 – and the Conservatives’ eventual wipe out – a political maverick was taunting the Prime Minister.

John Major’s bête noire was the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith who was funding the Referendum Party and paying for a splurge of posters and newspaper advertisements which promoted withdrawal from a federal Europe and called for Britain to return to a common trading market.

Two decades later the sceptics’ flag bearer is not an overbearing grandee but a larger-than-life Nigel Farrage, the bloke next door, only too happy to share a pint and explain why the United Kingdom should free itself from the clutches of the Brussels bureaucracy.

More importantly, UKIP ­– which back then was in its political infancy – is now a far deadlier threat than Goldsmith’s cheque book.  Having been endowed with political stardust, Farrage has the ability, at least for the moment, to mobilise the floating voter, that Holy Grail for every party strategist.

A failure to avoid an ill-judged photo-opportunity – or an inability to exploit unexpected mishaps – is often a pointer to the chances of eventual success in British politics.

David Miliband’s inept appearance at the 2008 Labour Party conference – walking along holding up a banana in his hand – was instantly captured by photographers and was an image which came back to haunt him.

Indeed the former Labour Foreign Secretary – now to be the new chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, a leading American humanitarian charity – never seemed entirely at home in the cut-and-thrust of the cruel interface between British politics and an unforgiving news media.

Today’s politicians, as demonstrated so colourfully by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, have to always have an eye on how their every move in public is likely to interpreted – or misinterpreted –  by the tabloid press.

David Miliband’s goofy photo-opportunity was a political car crash. It provided the most unforgettable, and much reproduced, image of the 2008 party conference season and came to symbolise his lack of a killer instinct.

When the chips had been down earlier that summer, when Gordon Brown was floundering as Labour Prime Minister, Miliband fluffed his chance to launch a bid for the Labour leadership; he showed he was no Michael Heseltine, more of a Michael Portillo