Archive for the ‘spin’ tag

Return to political swamp

without comments

Arriving back from holiday is rarely much fun, but there was something particularly depressing about coming back to such a tawdry and unpleasant political scene this past weekend.

Catching up on the coverage of ‘McBride-gate’ – or ‘smear-gate’ – I was struck not only by the grotesque-ness of the planned Red Rag smears, but by how long the smearing had been going on, years by the looks of it, and all but the most recent directed not at Conservative politicians but at Labour. The Sunday Times identified attempts to rubbish Ivan Lewis, Stephen Byers, David Miliband, Harriet Harman, and Stephen Carter. Given that Damian McBride was a special advisor from 2003 there were also, presumably, others. That is six years of smears – longer even than a government’s term of office.

But of course that limits the smears and spin to McBride himself. Who, though clearly the source of the recent emails found by Guido Fawkes, must have been part of a wider culture that found them acceptable. Indeed, given that figures such as Charlie Whelan were copied in emails sent between McBride and Draper (according to the Sunday Telegraph), a number of people connected to No.10 were aware of what was happening yet felt no need to comment or object (though it should be said that some – within and outside No.10 – did object, sometimes with painful consequences).

Though McBride’s plans were of a particularly vicious and personal nature, it is difficult, from the perspective of the public, not to conclude that if such a culture of political conspiracy is prevalent and considered acceptable in No.10, it must exist elsewhere in government too. And if in government, why not in Opposition aswell? It was the Conservatives, don’t forget, who appointed Andy Coulson as their Director of Communications, shortly after he had resigned as editor of News of the World in disgrace following the conviction of one of his journalists for illegally accessing personal information about the royal family.

Neither do all journalists come up smelling of roses, given a bunch of political correspondents seemed happy to publish McBride’s attacks on politicians – as Alice Miles indicated last week and Peter Wilby commented today.

One must hope that, as the MP Tom Harris said on the Westminster Hour, McBride was a serious anomaly. It would be too easy – and wrong – to extend the extreme behaviour of one special advisor to politicians and civil servants in general.

However, it is also hard to see how either main political party will rid itself of the more general culture of spin and leaks that seems to so characterise modern government.

Even today, most of the newspapers and many of the broadcasts led with leaks about the forthcoming Budget. There were frequent reports about it yesterday too.

Jump back to 1947, and Hugh Dalton – one of Labour’s most successful Chancellors – resigned when news of his Budget leaked to an evening newspaper on the day of its announcement.

This is certainly not a nostalgic paean to a post-war political culture (though austerity is coming back into fashion), but simply an observation that the corrosive culture of spins and leaks extends far further than the emails that have dominated the news for the last week.

Written by Martin Moore

April 20th, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

Exposure of the stats crime is the real story

with 2 comments

Humiliation for Labour on Knife Crime‘ (The Express). ‘Home Secretary Jacqui Smith apologises over knife crime figures‘ (The Telegraph).

The most interesting aspect of this story was not that the government was spinning statistics about knife crime, but that this was exposed by Sir Michael Scholar. In a corruscating letter to Jeremy Heywood, Permanent Secretary at Number 10, and in robust broadcast interviews after that, Sir Michael said that the release of the statistics was “premature, irregular and selective“.

Statistics are always being spun. Spun by the media, spun by the government, spun by NGOs. And of all statistics, crime figures are most ripe for manipulation. The statistics most often referred to by the media come from the British Crime Survey that relies not on police records but on a regular survey commissioned by the Home Office. Critics suggest the survey under-reports crime – for example by excluding under-16s (eg. see Wikipedia entry).
New Labour became notorious for using figures in ways that suited them. Blair and Brown frequently double counted government spending (e.g. see Peter Oborne on how £9bn miraculously became £21bn in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review). Large capital projects, most notably PFI, were mysteriously missing from the government’s books. Numerous Home Secretaries inflated police numbers, deflated immigration figures and touted selective successes in bringing down crime. Most memorably New Labour manipulated facts and figures to ‘sex up’ the dossiers justifying the war in Iraq.
Indeed this is the reason that Gordon Brown decided to make the statistics published by the Office for National Statistics independent of government, and why the UK Statistics Authority was set up in April 2008 with Sir Michael Scholar as its first head. Brown wanted to distance New Labour from its reputation for chronic spinning.
Little did Brown realise that his appointment would prove so effective, or that Scholar’s bark would match his bite.
Having now been bitten, will the government take more care in the future? Let’s hope so. But watch out for what happens to Sir Michael. If he is quietly shifted from his post in the next few months we will know that far from learning from its experience, the government will have decided it cannot live without spun statistics.

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2008 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , ,

Top 10 media lessons from Labour conference

with 2 comments

1. Avoid loose talk…
… in the lift. A lesson David Miliband will certainly remember next year after he – allegedly – remarked to a colleague after his speech that he wanted to avoid a ‘Heseltine moment’. Unbeknownst to Miliband an (unnamed) BBC journalist was also in the lift

2. Learn from the US – use your family
Gordon Brown wouldn’t go as far as Sarah Palin (or David Cameron) – he wouldn’t use his children as ‘props’ at the conference, but by letting his wife introduce him he seems to have convinced much of the media that he is, indeed, human (‘Gordon’s Wife-Line’)

3. Avoid loose talk…
… in the bar. Or you might let slip, as one junior No.10 official apparently did (from The Guardian), that a Cabinet minister is resigning – distracting from coverage of your leaders’ pivotal conference speech

4. Give press conferences in the bar at 3.15am
As Damien McBride and Julie Crowley did on Tuesday night – to confirm reports that Ruth Kelly was indeed going to resign. As opposed to making announcements in the official press briefing area which was, according to the FT, ‘deserted’

5. Avoid loose talk
… in the corridor. After Cherie Blair’s alleged ‘Well, that’s a lie’ comment at the 2006 conference. She was reported to have made the comment after hearing Gordon Brown claim in his speech that it had been a privilege to work with Tony Blair. It subsequently became the defining media moment of the Labour conference

6. Don’t manhandle your supporters from the conference hall
This is another lesson Labour learnt back in 2006 but watching the coverage again on YouTube (BBC clip here) reminded me how astonishing it was. But rather than releasing control there are reports that the Party instead used less overt methods of suppressing dissent (see lesson number 7)

7. Avoid loose talk…
… in unofficial Labour-supporting media. LabourHome made the mistake of releasing the findings of a ‘grassroots survey’ on the eve of the conference. The findings were not particularly shocking, but were presented as such by The Independent (see previous blog). LabourHome’s editor reportedly attracted the wrath of other party supporters. Wrath that may then have been extended to other Labour supporters (see Harry’s Place report on Martin Bright)

8. Walk more
A lesson Cameron learnt from The West Wing, Clegg adopted in Bournemouth, but Brown ignored. Walking gives the impression of dynamism, that you can’t just hang around making a speech, you have to get things done (though one must be careful not to walk too fast)

9. Say the same thing
And it might, eventually, get through. Matthew Engel picked up on this one in the FT. “So it’s official” Engel wrote, “it doesn’t matter what subject it is, you just say the same things. The template is: “In the past 11 years, conference, your Labour government has abolished ——-, put £xxxm into ———- for the ——- and provided free —— for the over-60s/over-80s/under-fives. The Tories opposed all these changes and have said they will revert to ——-. We want to make ——- stronger. That’s why we need unity and a fourth term for Labour.”

10. Avoid loose talk…
… in your hotel bedroom? One must assume, after the lead story this year (and in 2006) came from an overheard remark, that journalists will go to ever greater lengths to catch an unguarded, off-the-cuff comment. Politicians beware.

Written by Martin Moore

September 25th, 2008 at 9:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

What next for political spin?

without comments

Vincent Cable, whose rhetorical skills won him admirers during his short stint as caretaker Lib-Dem leader, writes today that the current government’s ‘PR skills rival those of Marie Antoinette during the Paris food riots’.

Oh how the worm turns. It really wasn’t long ago that politicians and the media were welcoming the end of Blairite spin with open arms. Finally, they said, we can look forward to politics without endless media manipulation, without constantly trying to distinguish between the surface and the substance, without Alastair Campbell and his proteges.

And now? ‘Bring back spin!’ They cry. ‘Bring back manipulation!’ Simon Jenkins was probably the most direct in the Guardian a couple of weeks back when he wrote that Brown ‘would be better advised to cheer up, stick to his guns and attempt some charisma implant’.

But the implications of Brown’s administration failing to present itself well go beyond the Prime Minister cheering up and showing a bit more charisma.

Many politicians will conclude that Blair was right. That one cannot be a modern day politician without being versed in the black arts of spin. That “not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear” (from Blair’s “feral beast” speech). That perception is indeed as important as reality.

David Cameron arguably made this conclusion some time ago – perhaps even before he appointed the apolitical Andy Coulson (recently fired from the editorship of the News of the World), to be his director of communications.

Many journalists will become yet more disillusioned with politics. Still furious with the machinations of Blair they will be unable to forgive the failure of no-spin Brown to resuscitate their belief in democratic politics.

Of course there is another way (though let’s not call it the third way). Politicians and the media could both decide to be more adult. Both could conclude – rightly – that democratic politics is inherently bound together with mass communication (note this does not necessarily mean ‘spin’). Politicians have a need – and an obligation – to tell people what they’re doing. The media need democratic politics to give them both the parameters and the space to report freely and critically. The two could do worse than recognising their mutual needs and seeing how they can best be fulfilled in interests of society.

Written by Martin Moore

June 2nd, 2008 at 7:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , ,