Will the best spin win?

THE DIZZY heights of the Houses of Parliament made an appropriate venue for the stimulating February meeting of London Freelance Branch, where the rôle of the spin doctors was put under scrutiny.

It appears even Labour's own politicians are questioning the power of its spin doctors, if recent articles in the national press are to be believed.

Deputy Labour Party leader, John Prescott, was reported in the Telegraph as saying that he wished someone would control the spin doctors after stories were floated, confirmed by the party and then abandoned, that Labour had a proposal to raise up to £500 million by selling the state-run betting industry.

This is just the latest example of the games the spin doctors appear to play with the media and more of their role was made clear at the meeting.

Leading off the discussion from the panel was BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones, author of the book Soundbites and Spin Doctors, who described how Labour's spin doctors are wielding their power.

He pointed out that Labour is now only doing what the Tories have being doing for decades, but starting to do it better.

He said: "The spin doctors are the shock troops of New Labour and are there to win a war."

Mr Jones explained that Labour's spin has been piling the pressure on the Tories, with the aim of making them look weak and divided, and also to prevent the Tories from getting their message across.

The Labour Party now has a headquarters staff of 230 people to help "promote" the party. A mega-computer is at the centre of the Party's "rapid rebuttal" unit.

The computer had been fed with an enormous amount of data about who said what when in Parliament, reams of statistics, press releases and much more. When the Tories accuse an old Labour Government of something or make claims about their own Government, Labour can at the touch of a few buttons rebut anything that isn't true.

Mr Jones described the lengths the spin doctors will go to in their attempts, often successful, to manage the news. These include ringing up reporters who do unfavourable stories and making it clear they may get excluded when the next "exclusive" is leaked. All the panellists felt there was nothing new about spin doctors except for the name.

Conservative MP Sir Teddy Taylor and Labour MP Tony Benn agreed, however, that the demand on politicians to provide soundbites for the media had practically excluded any attempt to talk about, let alone tackle, actual issues.

Teddy Taylor said the spin doctors now play a bigger rôle than ever before for two reasons.

One was that political parties no longer believe in things. The other was the development of TV and demand for soundbites.

Taylor said the biggest weapon a political party could use in promoting itself was to tell the truth.

Tony Benn told the meeting: "As a socialist, I feel more spinned against than spinning."

He commented that politics and the coverage of it was now about the politicians and what they were up to rather than the issues.

The only spin doctor prepared to brave the meeting was Alan Leaman of the Liberal Democrats, who said part of the problem lay with the journalists -- who he feels should be more circumspect about what they are being fed by the spin doctors.

Issues raised from the floor included the need for journalists to resist the spin doctors, and not be complicit in them managing the news agenda. The rôle of the political press lobby based at the House of Commons was also questioned as being too cosy and unquestioning.

Despite this the verdict of the panel and most of the meeting was that the best spin will win!

Jackie Cresswell

Mar/Apr 1997

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