David Rose on how Blair's regime will be remembered for its spin

Back in 1996, I recall sitting down in 10 Downing Street for dinner with regional newspaper editors, John Major's press secretary Jonathan Haslam, and the media head of every Whitehall department.

Major had spent the previous hour answering editors' questions. The dinner was to allow editors and press officers to discuss how to improve the flow of Government information.

Within months, Major was swept from office, and within two years, virtually every chief press officer that had been present was no longer in their post, even though – in their role as members of the government information service – they were independent of party politics.

Jonathan Haslam was the first to go, to be replaced by Alastair Campbell. Not only were new departmental press chiefs installed, but special advisers, more than ever before, made their appearance.

Press officers quickly found that, where news was concerned, they had a subordinate role. Spin doctors discovered that information was a valuable commodity, to be traded for favours. Journalists or media outlets sympathetic to New Labour were given information that was denied to journalists or outlets judged to be hostile or even independent. The age of spin had arrived.

Alastair Campbell no doubt felt justified in seizing control over Whitehall's media output. While for most of the past 10 years, Blair has enjoyed good relations with the media, previous Labour leaders such as Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot had to cope with a press that was overwhelmingly hostile.

During its 18 long years in the political wilderness, Labour's problem was not just to modernise itself, but to radically change its image, which entailed replacing a previous negative press operation with a pro-active, over-campaigning one that projected the party in a positive way that would enthuse journalists and even earn their approval.

It was a herculean task that I recall well because, as part of a job application, I was consulted as to how the Labour party should tackle it. In 1985, between lobby jobs, I was interviewed by Larry Whitty, then Labour's general secretary, and Peter Mandelson, for the post of Mandelson's deputy.

Mandelson had only recently been appointed Labour's director of communications and was still largely unknown. I did not get that job I'd applied for, but as a political reporter observed how the transformation of old Labour, started by Kinnock, aided by Mandelson's genius and completed by Blair, made New Labour electable.

Blair's mistake, when taking office, was in not trusting Government information officers and the civil service to handle his Government's media relations. Alastair Campbell also combined the job of Labour press officer with that of Downing Street press secretary, which left journalists confused as to who they were speaking to. But the biggest mistake of all was for Blair to allow truth to become the chief casualty of spin.

Blair's legacy is tarnished not just by what is now widely perceived as his misjudgment in going to war in Iraq, but in misleading Parliament, the media and the public about the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Tory governments had their own troubles with the media, but I can recall Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, only ever lying once. As chairman of the Lobby during the Falklands War, I attended every Downing Street briefing. Lobby meetings were then a better source of information than now. Now everything that is said is on the record, so little is said that is worth reporting.

Then everything that was said was unattributable and Downing Street was less inhibited in giving journalists guidance.

Nevertheless, Ingham knew that anything he said ran the risk of being sourced, especially as the Ministry of Defence had disbanded briefings for defence correspondents for the duration of the war. So when the Task Force arrived off the Falklands, Ingham briefed that there would be no D-Day-style invasion – a rare lie that saved lives.

Under Blair, spinning has come so embedded in Government that journalists genuinely now have difficulty at times in knowing when they are being told the truth.

Downing Street has begun to rectify its mistakes. The roles of official Government spokesman and party press officer have been made separate. Tom Kelly, a government information officer, speaks for the Prime Minister, while, for party political guidance, journalists have to talk to David Hill, director of communications, who is a special adviser.

Gordon Brown is expected to go further by showing the door to many of the Blairite spin doctors. As for spin itself, it remains to be seen whether that will be discarded as well, although after 39 years in the Lobby, I rather doubt it.

Since arriving in the Parliamentary press gallery in 1968, David Rose has covered politics for more than 20 newspapers, including the Sunday Express, the Mail on Sunday, and the Liverpool Daily Post.

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 × 2 =

CLOSE
CLOSE