Michael White: Spin is as old as history - TV news isn't

British journalists divide into two sharply warring camps over their trade's relationship with politicians.

The majority view is that most politicans are rascals. That means their bad deeds must be exposed by a vigilant media to an electorate which (for some strange reason unconnected with the above) is increasingly mistrustful of Whitehall and Westminster.

As in other endeavours – sport, arts, industry and the City, though the latter can afford better lawyers – heroes periodically emerge. But they have to have feet of clay. Wayne Rooney, Freddie Flintoff, Tony Blair or BP's Lord Browne – it is all the same. Build 'em up, knock 'em down.

The media minority wonders whether we are a major cause of the problem of dwindling public trust, though we usually write our own role out of the script. Never admit the power you wield is an axiom of journalism, the one estate of the realm whose power has greatly expanded in the past 50 years, according to Anthony Sampson's final edition of The Anatomy of Britain.

The majority portray news like a bus. It comes along, you catch it or you don't. If the latter, blame Alastair Campbell for diverting it to some rival. It's never our fault: like doctors we bury our mistakes, quite literally in the case of Dr David Kelly, who was betrayed more by journalists than by Campbell.

Such is the background to the Blair era's disastrous collision with spin. Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Campbell, had seen what the press had done to Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, radio and TV usually trailing feebly in the wake of the tabloid narrative. John Major, their hero in 1992, was a leper by 1993.

So New Labour organised to co-opt or neutralise the hostile papers, to deal with the emerging 24/7 rolling news era by getting their retaliation in first. Murdoch was squared, even the Daily Mail reduced to puzzled acquiescence for a while. The unreliable Guardian was in the dog house, the BBC was safe to abuse.

As with Harold Wilson, who had a 1960s press honeymoon, it worked brilliantly for a while, then became the seeds of its own undoing. Blair had put Number 10 briefings on the record (inevitably rendering them less informative) and generously opened them to foreign correspondents.

He held monthly press conferences (a dwindling novelty) and energised the passive Whitehall PR operation. Though a Luddite himself he spent money creating excellent departmental websites where hacks can find a lot of "scoops" if they bother to look, even more than in that other secret document, Hansard.

But all governments have failures, make mistakes, and those defensive manipulative arts backfired. Double counting, reannouncing policies, selective briefings for reliable papers, shoddy intelligence dossiers which (remember, Campbell was a hack too) stretch the facts, it was bound to end in tears – and did. As in post-Vichy France, former collaborators were first to denounce.

Spin is as old as history, but 24/7 TV is not. In an overcrowded market threatened by new media, we are all tabloids now, and it becomes ever harder to stand out against the pack. Politicians are more honest than journalists because they're more accountable. It's as simple as that.

Michael White is assistant editor of The Guardian and has been reporting on politics on and off at the paper for 30 years.

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