TO WHAT EXTENT HAS THE BRITISH POLITICAL SYSTEM BEEN AFFECTED BY A FOCUS ON ‘SPIN’ AND MANAGING THE MEDIA CYCLE? DISCUSS BOTH GOVERNMENT AND THE POLITICAL PARTIES, AND GIVE A CASE STUDY OF A PARTICULAR INSTANCE OF COALITION GOVERNMENT POLICY, E.G. ‘THE BIG SOCIETY’.
“A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions… They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates, and they’ll be playing for very high stakes. How well they do their work could be as important as how well the candidates do theirs.”
– The New York Times (October 1984)
Cunning lies and tell tales; from the early Norman sailors exaggerating an adventure story to Nazi propaganda, Spin has arguably always existed. It is a skill put well in use over the years to spread propaganda and manage news media by politicians all over the world. It is being argued that news media management by politicians is apparently dying out. Journalist and communications consultant, George Pitcher, suggests that Spin has come to a dead end. In his book, ‘The Death of Spin,’ he suggests that electors “demand an honest dialogue with government… problem is that in the mouths of politicians, honesty turns to dust… it can only be about how you behave, rather than what you claim.” (Pitcher, 2003: 253) Furthermore, there is speculation that the death of Spin will be at the hands of the Internet. “It may take a disaster, a leader saying something ridiculous then realizing a person with a video cellphone could destroy you. Now authenticity is king… you have to be ‘on’ 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” (Trippi and Branigan, Guardian, 2007: online)
The word ‘spin’ means to turn or alter the position or condition of something, leading us to the use of popular phrases such as ‘in a spin of events’. There is large debate over the etymology of Spin. Some believe it goes back to ‘yarn’, that storytellers were typically ‘spinning a yarn’ or ‘yarning.’ (Vaux, 1812) Therefore, even though the denotation of spinning a yarn was to turn thread, the connotation became an entity meaning to tell a tale. However, the original counterpart was believed to be that the etymology of Spin was from ‘baseball’, believing that the pitchers technique to spin the baseball before releasing it would control the direction that the ball goes in.
A political individual employed to promote a favourable interpretation of events and policies to journalists, this is the earliest definition of a spin-doctor put forward by the Oxford dictionary in 1977; but who exactly carried out the job? Spin-doctors have been known to be journalists, civil servants, political appointees and public relations specialists. Yet they all need to have a common quality to pursue the role of a spin-doctor – the ability to cunningly lie through their teeth and to have a way with words. Spin Doctors don’t necessarily have to believe in the things they are spinning; Prime Minster Blair’s Spin-doctor, Alistair Campbell, said that his role wasn’t to tell the PM what his opinion was on policies, or disapprove of them. His main focus was “communicating the decisions that Tony (Blair) and other senior Labour politicians were taking and trying to do it in a strategic context… getting a simple message through to the public.” (BBC, Online) However, being a spin-doctor doesn’t mean that there is no possible further career change ahead; Spin-doctors have gone on to be MP’s and leaders of political parties; such as Ed Balls and Ed Miliband.
While civil servants are hired for an expertise in a field, and must serve whatever party is in power, they remain impartial to political favouritism and do the job they are experts at. However, political appointees are employed by the ruling government in power to serve the person that hired them.
There are many techniques used by politicians and spin-doctors to manage media news:
Overt restriction: When the government censorships something, and that means that there would be a heavy penalty if the media did not follow through and mentioned it anyway. This was seen by the Defence of the Realm Act during World War One, which prohibited the British media from collecting or publishing any information about the war. (Bakir, 2010: 103)
Covert restriction: When the government asks the media to not print anything on a particular subject because it has life threatening consequences if published. This was seen in 2007 when the British government requested that the media does not release to the public that Prince Harry was deployed to a tour in Afghanistan till it was safe to do so. (White, 2008: 83)
Another technique to manage media news is to prove them with briefings and statements. This was the covert disclosure used by the Thatcher government by having her spin-doctor Bernard Ingham meet with accredited journalists and giving them information, as long as they didn’t mention the sources. This then saw a surge of leaks in newspapers with frequent use of the phrase ‘sources close to No.10/senior politicians.’ (Hart, 2013: 88) This ‘lobby system’ became unpopular and soon newspapers withdrew from the ‘lobby’ and back to writing whatever they wanted. Andreas Whittham Smith, the former editor for The Independent said, “the Lobby has been used to manage the news, journalists take in what Downing Street tells them and make no further enquires.” (Hart, 2013: 89)
However, the disclosure technique was used overtly by Blair’s Labour Government, the PM insured that his spin-doctor Alistair Campbell had frequent (often both in the morning and afternoon) briefings with the British press, although this was soon passed on to other Labour Spin doctors when Campbell’s boldness wasn’t being appreciated by the British press. (Seldon and Kavanagh, 2005: 97)
Another technique used by politicians and spin doctors is the use of the passive tense; “using the passive voice or the third person impersonal verb forms can lend greater authority to ones utterances; or it can also serve to shape our impressions of a speakers involvement and responsibility.” (Cunningham, 2002: 168) This was used largely by the American President, Nixon, who would use passive tone in his speeches to indirectly blame others for mistakes in his present and past. Politicians who admit things went wrong ‘mistake’ or pointed out that it was the conflicting party, which made the mistake, and that they were now working hard to change the policy.
Euphemism or double speak is a known technique used by politicians to get across an idea that sounds offence in a term that makes it sound less offensive. “Euphemisms are a propagandistic tool of misdirection… But advocates won’t stop manipulating us until we insist that they “call a spade a spade.” (Smith, 2013: Online) It could be calling assisted suicide ‘death with dignity;’ another popular one is ‘the right to choose’ in regards to abortion beliefs. By doing so, they give the questioners the false idea that, while they have the ‘choice’ they don’t however have the power to act on their choice, thus the use of ‘right to choose’ euphemism is giving the Politician the chance to hide behind their true beliefs in the matter (saving them potential electoral votes) for example, David Cameron claims he is pro-choice, however, he is currently campaigning to have the age of abortion lowered from the current 24-week time limit to a new 20 week time limit, which would restrict further the amount of time people have that ‘choice’ to abort or not.
While using the euphemism of ‘right to choose’ a person is hiding behind declaring their true opinions on the matter, furthermore, the length of the euphemism can turn the phrase into a soundbite, therefore creating a phrase that will stick in the minds of the receiver, a soundbite is a collection of words or sentences that is spun to remain fresh in the memory of the receiver, it is created to distort and mislead the mind of whoever hears it, but still be powerful enough for them to always remember and recollect. Soundbites are powerful because they don’t expose what the speaker really means; it is merely a means to show that they have addressed the topic, without revealing their true feelings or motives towards the topic. For example, the use of the soundbite ‘Education, Education, Education’ by Blair was effective because it give electors the impression that Blair is highly prioritising Education policies, when in actuality, he could be hypothetically, planning to go against what the policies electors really want for that sector.
Soundbites also act as a technique to ‘dumb down political reporting’, by making it harder for newspapers to assert their own opinions or attempts to explain the meaning that contradict the powerful effect created by the use of the soundbite in the first place.
Perhaps the Internet is playing a part in the role of Spin’s supposed demise, Social media is playing a huge part in influencing political activism Political party memberships have decreased over the years, as have trade union memberships. This means the government needs something to manage the media and maintaining a controlled supply of information being sent out to the general public to ensure the continuous support of elector votes.
Finally, one of the most popular techniques of spin is releasing unfavourable news at the same time as popular or breaking news, in hopes that while everyone is focused on the popular/breaking news, they will fail to recognise the unfavourable news. This was made popular during the Blair Government when Labour Special Adviser, Jo Moore messaged her fellow peers during the events of 9/11, in which she said “today is a good day to bury bad news.” This caused so much controversy and trouble for the labour government during the time (Whitehall Spin Row) and caused the aforementioned persons involved to resign in 2002.
News cycle differs greatly from how it was many years ago, while newspapers is the oldest form of mass news distribution, papers usually print during the night, once every 24 hours. TV stations tend to run more regularly than newspapers but even then, TV channels with 24 hour news programmes tend to restrict their daily news cycle to focus around particular times during the day, filling the rest of the time with less important news/talk shows. With the recent emerge and rise of blogs and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, the amount/quality of the news distributed depends on the activity and knowledge of the account holder. However, radio news cycles are debatably the most effective; a radio news station will have to keep news rolling 24 hours of the day, which is why they tend to, like TV, keep less relevant news/ talk shows confined to the time of day where the least listeners are likely to tune in.
In spite of this, hardly being the most effective method of news distribution; even with the popular rise of online media and the supposed effectiveness of radio, research has found that TV remains the highest source of news consummation- as shown in the chart below, (Ofcom, 2013: Online). So what are spin doctors now having to do to maintain their management of news media?
In January 1985, the House of Lords had its first televised parliamentary session broadcast live. However, the House of Commons still resisted and refused to follow in the footsteps of the House of Lords. The resistance came hard by the then Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, who when asked by the then Labour leader Nick Kinnock, why Thatcher opposed the reform, said, “ my concern is for the good reputation of this house.” This was received by yells of “frit, frit, frit” (frightened) by the opposition (Living Heritage: online). Yet, what was really the reason behind the Prime Minsters resistance of the live broadcasting? For a Prime Minister who usually had all her public speeches well prepared and written by her spin doctor and speech coach Bernard Ingham, perhaps the main reason of her resistance was due to her genuinely being as ‘frit’ as the opposition accused her of being.
Live and uncut televised broadcast would (and went on to be) a huge blow to the gut of Spin and its management of news media management. The media no longer needed to collect their political scoop from well maintained and controlled lobbying briefings or off the record leaks, they could now watch and report on the happenings in Parliament by observing and judging the government in their natural habitat.
Furthermore, and more importantly, televised broadcasts of the commons gave the general public a chance watch the parliamentary debates and draw opinions without consulting the news media. Yet the question is, how many people actually watch live debates by the parliament, especially now that interest in politics is at an all time extreme low?
Live broadcasting of the house of commons became permanent in 1990, in the same year Sir Geoffrey Howe (deputy prime minister) resigned from the house, his resignation was in disagreement with the prime minister herself, and while the party tried to hide this information, he took advantage of the new broadcasting to publically read his letter of resignation to the government and the rest of the world. (Howe, 1990: Online) It was argued that the vote to permanently broadcast parliament live (alongside the resignation of Sir Howe) were two of many important reasons which led to the resignation of Margret Thatcher so soon after the aforementioned events. (Irwin, 1994: 44)
In the 1990’s the Labour Party regained power in government for the first time in the previous four elections when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, however their ideals were argued to have been different than before, which is why Blair’s government was known as the new labour movement. Tony Blair served as prime minister for ten years and three elections. During this time, spin doctors and special advisers rose from 38 to 81 (Gay, 2010: 13).
Blair’s spin-doctor, was none other than the notoriously famous Alistair Campbell who worked as Director of Communications for Blair and No.10 from 1997-2003 and resigned due to the scandal surrounding the death of British scientist David Kelly and the ‘sexed up’ September dossier which led to the launch of the Iraq War.
Campbell was well known to have asserted his ‘fearful’ power over both the media and other labour party members. Compared to Thatcher’s Ingham, who used to control the media by feeding them with unattributable quotes; Campbell preferred to hold regular meetings with the press, allowing them to ask what they wanted to him and in return giving them subtle enough answers that still managed to please both sides.
Moreover, contrary to Ingham, Campbell held a strong grip over the members of the Labour Party, centralised communications with MPs by acting as a whip when it came to media relations as well as using the ‘the line’ on the Blackberry phone; which was providing all the labour party members with instant broadcast messages, with instructions on how they should reply to any given matter that would have arisen at the time, especially what they could and could not say to the media regarding that matter. All things considered, Alistair Campbell is now known to be one of Britain’s best spin-doctors and became a model for aggressive management of news. The BBC show ‘in the thick of it’ is thought to have inspired by his work with spin.
Spin is considered to be important in British politics, particularly from the 1990’s onwards, there are many suggestions as to why it has become so important in politics. Some propose that it has become so much harder to manage news media under all the new and thriving information sharing platforms such as social media. Politicians constantly have to keep up with the media and general public, especially online political activists. Politicians now try and manage both the media and the public at the same time, by interacting with them on social media sites. This gives the impression that the public is getting their ideas across to politicians and thus having their voices heard, perhaps this is true, but often than not, its only the backbench or unpopular MP’s who rarely do message people back.
One of Britain’s famous, but not popular spinned policy would no doubt be the September Dossier in 2003, prime minister tony Blair claimed he received intelligence from a MI6 source saying that Iraq (Saddam Hussain) had Nuclear weapons of mass destruction. When Blair’s office saw how the British general public was against interfering in Iraq, someone (supposedly Campbell, although this was never proven to be true) released a dossier in the form of a soundbite saying that “Iraq could launch WMDs in 45 minutes”, after the scientist involved released the truth about the soundbite spun during an interview with BBC journalist Adrian Gilligan (Gilligan, 2003: online), he was found dead, by committing suicide.
The Hutton inquiry was launched to find the truth behind Dr Kelly’s death and also to investigate the scandal of the dossier, during which, Baron Hutton the head of the investigation came to the conclusion that the dossier had been ‘sexed up’. This meant that it had been twisted and to appeal to the ear of the receiver, ultimately misleading the intended audience. A friend of Dr Kelly argued that even if the Dossier was ‘sexed up’, “what does ‘sexing up’ mean? If I ‘sexed myself up to talk to you… does it mean that I’m changing my essence? No, it doesn’t… not necessarily exaggerating or changing the essence.” (Flint, 2003: online) Regardless of this, the final Inquiry document stated: “Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in between one and two years.” The dossier implied that the reference to Iraqi forces being able to deploy within 45 minutes was never corrected… From experience it was difficult to persuade the media to make such corrections. (MacAskill and Norton-Taylor, 2003: online)
Till now, many years after the dossier was published, there is a mistrust and broken line between politicians, the media and the general public, despite the desired effect from the dossier soundbite, many people were and still are against the whole invasion of Iraq.
The big society was one of the Conservative Party’s biggest plans for their Manifesto in their 2010 election campaign. It came into effect in 2010, but under the joint effort of the new coalition government, which promotes a society, whose members are active contributors to their own communities especially by charity, volunteering and entrepreneurships and more. However, it is very easy to notice the similarities between this scheme and Blair’s ‘The Third Way’ scheme, which strived for the same thing. Nonetheless, the scheme sounds appealing to any neighbourly citizen, yet what people fail to notice is the spin Cameron’s government has put on this initiative, by auctioning off some of the internships for the scheme to the offspring of rich Conservative party members, amongst other contributing factors (Ishkanian and Szreter, 2012: 115).
Yet it seems that despite David Cameron’s rejection of using a spin-doctor, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Spin is not being used. In fact, Kevin Maguire, associate editor at the Daily Mirror said, “we don’t have a prime minister. We have a prime spinner.” (Singleton 2011: Online) He could be suggesting that while spin doctors were conventionally speech coaches (Ingham) or political appointees, (Campbell) it seems that David Cameron is only rejecting the help of a Spin doctor is because, perhaps, the ability to ‘spin’ has actually become a job requirement of a Prime Minister in a modern media frenzied society that needs to be managed, which is what Maguire believes Cameron is already particularly good at.
In conclusion, while many people believe that spin-doctors and spin in general is dead, or dying, latest statistics show otherwise. From 1994-2013, the number of Spads rose 188% from 34-98, the average cost of a Spad was £73.470, which has seen an increase of their wages bill go from 1.5million in 1994 to 7.2million in 2013 (Chorley, 2013: online). While calls to have restrictions on spending on spin have been unsuccessful, with lots of politicians still paying taxpayers money to Spin-doctors like Craig Oliver who is being payed £140,000 a year for his services (Beattie, 2013: online) Furthermore, due to the rise in number of spin-doctors, a code of conduct was drawn to list a number of ethics and morals that should be upheld (Morrison, 2013: 112)
The importance and demand for Spin is then obviously high, no to mention the impact and power of influence it possess. Hitler was quoted to have said, “The most important propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamentalist principle is borne in mind constantly… confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over… in this world, persistence is the requirement for success.” (Hoffman, 1995: 140) So whether it is confided to a few key points as a soundbite, like referring to a cigarette as a “torch of freedom,” (Bernays, 1929) or being persistent and repeating the word ‘education’ three times, it’s getting politicians ideas across to the electors effectively.
To end, I turn to the notoriously acclaimed ‘father of spin’ (Tye, 2002); Edward Bernays, who famously said, “propaganda will never die out, intelligent men must realise that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive means and help bring order out of chaos.” (Bernays, 1928: 168)
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