Coventry University Conversation
April 23, 2009There is no doubt that there is a need for expert political advisers at the heart of government. Ministers should be free to draw on specialist advice, they should be able to hear an alternative opinion to that of the civil service. There is also no doubt that in the past there have been highly-politicised media handlers in previous Labour and Conservative governments. The names Joe Haines and Bernard Ingham spring immediately to mind. But equally there is no doubt that it was the incoming Labour government of Tony Blair in 1997 which created the wheeler-dealing, shoot-from-the-hip political spin doctor of today, a party activist paid for by the taxpayer, pulling the strings in Downing Street and Whitehall. Crucially, as special advisers, they acquired the authority to give instructions to civil servants and it was this unbridled power which has sowed the seeds of their downfall. Tony Blair changed the balance of power within Downing Street; it was Blair who ensured that Alastair Campbell’s writ would run through Whitehall; and it was Blair who doubled and nearly trebled the size of this elite group under Campbell’s control, a network of spin doctors who had free rein – on behalf of their ministers -- to manipulate the flow of information from state to public. Right from the start I made the point in my articles and books that I believed the spin doctors would become New Labour’s Achilles heel. I sensed that Campbell and his acolytes -- as with Peter Mandelson before him -- were so obsessed with spinning, and so addicted to the manipulation of the news media, that at some point it would inevitably end in tears for the Labour Party. I remember how I was ridiculed at the time. When Campbell spied me taking a shorthand note of a particularly telling aside, he would accuse me of having an orgasm on spin, of being obsessed by the process of politics rather than concentrating on what the Labour Party’s policies could achieve. I was the one who was said to be out of step, nothing more than a sad anorak on spin. But even I never thought Campbell’s successors would stoop as low as Damian McBride and Derek Draper in concocting lurid and offensive stories intended to smear senior Conservatives and their wives. McBride’s ability to sit unchallenged at a computer screen in a corner of the Prime Minister’s war room – and write an email containing fabricated allegations about the Leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Chancellor and their families – was an inevitable consequence of Gordon Brown’s failure, perhaps his inability, to honour his own promise to turn his back on spin and to clean up his act by ordering his closest advisers to stop the un-attributable briefings which have been so corrosive of comradeship among his colleagues in the cabinet and the upper echelons of the party. I am afraid to say that character assassination is in the dna of Labour’s spin doctors and despite whatever might be said now, successive Cabinet Secretaries have proved powerless to force advisers like McBride to honour the code of conduct for temporary civil servants. To his credit the current Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell has moved swiftly to implement Brown’s request that the code of conduct should be strengthened to require all special advisers to sign an undertaking that they understand that they will be sacked automatically if they are found “disseminating in appropriate material”. But like his predecessors O’Donnell knows full well that if the code had ever been taken seriously in the past, either by the Prime Minister or his cabinet colleagues, then Campbell & Co would have lost their jobs within weeks of Tony Blair taking office. Don’t forget that it was only last October that Brown failed to act decisively when Damian McBride was caught in the act, leaking to journalists that the then Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, intended to resign. Tony Blair, with Alastair Campbell’s help, unleashed forces they could not control: the government’s information service became subservient to spin doctors whose utter contempt for the impartiality of the civil service culminated in epic, grisly moments like the resignation of Brown’s first spinner, Charlie Whelan, for briefing against Peter Mandelson over his secret home loan, and Jo Moore’s infamous email in 2001 telling civil servants in the Department of Transport that the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre was “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”. You have to remember that it was Blair who opened the door the blatant politicisation of the government’s information service in November 1997. He allowed Campbell to rewrite the rule book for civil service information officers instructing them to “grab the agenda” and ignore the confidentiality of ministerial announcements. Campbell’s stint in Downing Street culminated in the despicable witch-hunt which ended in the death of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly but as Blair’s former press secretary has subsequently never tired of telling his admirers, his accomplishments in Downing Street always had the full backing of the then Prime Minister. My early confrontations with Blair’s spin master only served to reinforce my determination to continue chronicling in my books on spin what I believed were the abuses that Blair had ushered in. In Campbell’s eyes my desire to continue writing an insider’s account of the government’s relationship with the news media conflicted with my job as a BBC political correspondent.
The scars on my back show how effective the New Labour machine had become – long before the episode involving the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan – in using complaints to my bosses at the BBC as a way to curb what the spin doctors deemed was my “unhelpful” reporting. As the complaints rolled in, Labour’s spin doctors demonstrated their flair for the kind of character assassination which has wounded countless Labour MPs and destroyed many of their careers. My editors were told that my reporting was “dishonest” and sometimes “fraudulent”; that my shorthand note was “unreliable”; that I had “tricked” a union leader into giving an interview when he was drunk; and that I had knowingly “broken” the BBC’s guidelines by filming a Labour MP’s children. Although I am no longer a BBC correspondent and have become something of a free spirit, I have continued to monitor Labour’s media machine. In my most recent book, Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs, I argued that in the years he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown became the Labour Party’s “most prolific and longest-serving trader in government secrets”. I described how Brown’s two former special advisers, Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan operated “a clearing house for leaks” and dispensed Brown’s “booty with deadly accuracy” both in Opposition and later in the Treasury. And in Downing Street, Brown’s spin doctors have turned out to be just as obsessed as Blair’s with their predilection for the advanced briefing of ministerial announcements – or the institutionalised leaking of government secrets as I prefer to describe it. While Brown is rightly in the frame for having lost control of his spinners, David Cameron too has questions to answer. Why have the Conservatives apparently abandoned the party’s long-standing promise – and undertaking given repeatedly by his immediate predecessors – to purge the burgeoning ranks of special advisers and change the law to force them to obey the code of conduct? Given the fact that he was once a political adviser himself, the media-savvy Cameron is only too well aware of how effective spin doctors can be in attacking (and defending) either government or Opposition. At the age of 25, Cameron cut his political teeth in the 1992 general election, preparing briefings for John Major. Cameron was one of the leading lights in the Tory brat pack that was mockingly dubbed “Patten’s puppies”.They had a taste for stunts endorsed by the then party chairman Chris Patten which were aimed at destabilising Neil Kinnock. The Conservatives won the 1992 election against expectations and it was the Tories’ success in humiliating Kinnock which drove on Alastair Campbell once he was appointed Blair’s press secretary in 1994. So history looks like coming full circle and my fear is that an incoming Conservative government will be as addicted to spin as New Labour. I cannot see any incoming Conservative Prime Minister wanting to turn his back on the possibility of employing seventy to eighty party activists at the centre of government, not least because it is the taxpayer who picks up a wage bill which is currently just short of six million pounds a year. So may be I am a little premature in entitling my remarks The Rise and Fall of the Spin Doctor. Perhaps I would have been better advised to have said I was going to have a stab at predicting how the spin doctors would reinvent themselves under a Conservative government.I will finish with a few thoughts on some of the wider issues surrounding the ill-fated attempt by Derek Draper and Damian McBride to establish a gossipy website for the Labour Party. Draper was right in his assessment: the Labour Party did have – and still has – a massive hole to fill in trying to build up an online presence to match the commanding lead established by right-wing bloggers on behalf of the Conservative Party. It raises an important question: Have the Conservatives found a neat way to keep the activities of their attack dogs at arms length from Tory Central Office. Are their activists free to put the boot in via the blogosphere – a freedom that isn’t easily exercised by the party in power. And perhaps more to the point, should more have been done to hold the lobby journalists of Westminster to account? Un-attributable briefings have become the life support system of modern political journalism and it is the McBrides of this world who will always be waiting in the wings with another potentially poisonous transfusion. Just as in the USA, where the Democrats’ campaign team built up an overwhelming online lead for Barrack Obama, it is the hunger for power on the part of political activists on the right which has helped to put the Conservatives way ahead in the blogosphere. So there is a question for Cameron: Will he give an assurance the Conservatives will refrain in the future from seeking to exploit unsubstantiated claims about the personal and family lives of politicians when they appear on political websites and when there is no other form of corroboration?
So far we have heard repeatedly from Cameron and George Osborne about the Conservatives’ determination to change the culture in Downing Street, to end the reliance on spin and character assassination. I have my doubts whether anything will change. We also have to be aware of the shift which is taking place within the media. Labour are braced for a good kicking at the ballot box in the local and European Parliamentary elections in June. The campaign will be a curtain raiser for the general election expected no later than May or June next year. If there is a significant protest vote, it could be a pivotal moment for newspapers like the Sun as they calculate the timing of what I think will be an inevitable shift from backing Labour and a return to supporting the Conservatives. The elections the month after next will be the first chance for party managers to assess the impact of political bloggers on the process of electioneering. Another force for change will be the expanding audio-visual output of newspaper websites. By going online with audio and videos the national press is beginning to upstage the established television and radio services. Complaints about police brutality during the G20 demonstrations in London became headline news when first The Guardian and then the Sunday Times posted videos which showed officers caught in the act of hitting protestors. In recent months both the Sun and the News of the World have also dictated the news agenda with a series of intrusive videos, a foretaste of the way in which sensational footage of politicians misbehaving – caught perhaps on mobile phones or cctv – might end up online and give party managers a fright.
Before his demise, Draper predicted that in the thirty days of a general election campaign, there was every possibility that for “three or four days” at least the news would be dominated by stories which started in the blogosphere. His prediction could hardly have been more prescient: the McBride-Draper tale of smears and intrigue, which originated on the Guido Fawkes website, dominated the entire Easter holiday and the rest of the following week. I think we will witness a step change in electioneering because of what is appearing on line. In the 2001 and 2005 general elections, party managers had to adjust to the impact of the 24-hour news channels. Draper and McBride have given us a foretaste of what the online input could be.