Alex Smith: Ed Miliband’s master of cyber-spin

Alex Smith, Labour’s first dedicated online communications specialist, will take the fight to the Tory blogosphere.

Ed Miliband's new spinners Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts are rightly raking in the plaudits. Almost overnight, his bland, labouring statements have been transformed into a streamlined and effective critique of the Tory-led government. Where once Miliband opposed in prose, he now does so in tabloid poetry.

But there is a third member of the Milibyte media machine, one who shuns both the limelight and the shadows.

Alex Smith is the new leader's cyber-spinner. Residing in the fourth dimension, he occupies an electronic netherworld. Where old-style comms officers operate with sharp press releases and speed-dial mobiles, Smith's weapons are delicately nuanced Twitter hashtags and fiercely compacted URLs.

If the battleground of the new politics is to be the internet and the blogosphere, Alex Smith is Ed's cyber-warrior. Nicknamed "Cylon Smith", after the race of machines from Battlestar Galactica that turned with ruthless efficiency on their human masters, he is attempting to bring the discipline of modern press management to the chaotic arena of online politics.

He first came to the Labour leader's eye after his LabourList website became one of the first on the centre left to challenge the well-established Tory "blogemony". Building on experience gleaned from the inevitable secondment to the Obama campaign, he was poached by Miliband, for whom he successfully recruited young Labour supporters, and bloggers, to the cause. At the start of this month he cryptically announced he had "taken up a permanent post in the leader's office in communications".

The role of cyber-spinner is a difficult one. As one of Ed's more senior advisers once told me, "The trouble is we're still not sure how to engage with the blogosphere. We understand it's important, but when we deal with the lobby we know what we're dealing with. Bloggers are an unknown quantity. They play by different rules."

Risky business

Smith is the man charged with getting some ground rules laid down. Soon after Ed Miliband's leadership victory he hosted a meeting with a number of leading Labour bloggers to try to find ways of co-ordinating the left's online output. A number of ideas were mooted, from a collective "blogging hub" to a co-ordinated fundraising drive.

However, Smith's role has evolved beyond structural planning. Even before he accepted an official position with Team Ed he was putting in place a concerted programme of cyber-rebuttal. Initially, negative stories would receive a short, sharp response on Twitter. Posters would be advised that issues were a "non-story". Recently, more formalised responses have appeared. Earlier this week it was Smith who was first to attempt to rubbish reports that Charles Falconer had been offered, and rejected, the position of Ed Miliband's chief of staff.

This attempt to manage the blogosphere is unusual and risky. But even veteran bloggers acknowledge that Smith has demonstrated a sure touch in engaging with a difficult medium. "I think he's done a pretty good job," said one seasoned online scribe. "He's out there pushing messages, but he's doing it in a straight way. I work pretty well with him."

Other observers point to how he has nurtured a stable of supportive high-profile bloggers, including Sunny Hundal, Will Straw and Sunder Katwala. "He pulled these guys together during Ed's campaign, and he's kept them tight," said one insider. "They're all bouncing off each other very effectively."

Bobby dazzler

The proof of his success was highlighted towards the end of last year with the publication of the Total Politics 2010 Blog Awards. Left-of-centre blogs took up four of the top ten places and seven of the top 20. The previous year there was only one left-wing blog (Tom Harris) in the top ten and four in the top 20. Iain Dale, the Bobby Moore of the political blogosphere, heaped praise on the "strides made by left-of-centre bloggers".

Not everyone regards Smith's arrival as positive. Some Labour officials say there is poor co-ordination between Miliband's online and mainstream communications strategies. Others regard Smith himself as too inexperienced for a front-line communications post.

"He cleaned up the mess left by Draper [as in Derek, the former editor of LabourList], and got lucky with Ed. But he's not a communications professional," said one source.

May 2010 was supposed to have been the first "internet election". In the end it was the debates, the Duffy gaffe and old-fashioned grass-roots organisation that defined the campaign. But it is widely agreed that, as more of the mainstream media disappear behind paywalls, more and more broadcast output becomes available on the internet, and the army of political activists seeking to shape the political debate directly grows ever greater, the influence of the blogosphere will only increase.

As it does so, the influence of the virtual communicators will grow as well. Alex Smith is Labour's first cyber-spinner. And he has a plan.

UPDATE: The beauty of the blogosphere

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All doctors kill people – and the threat of prosecution is bad for everyone

We must recognise the reality of medical practice: just because a doctor makes a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’ve all broken the law. 

On 15 November the Court of Appeal quashed the 2013 conviction for gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) of a senior consultant surgeon in London, David Sellu. Sellu, who had completed his prison term by the time the appeal was heard, will never get back the 15 months of his life that he spent in jail. Nor will the personal and family trauma, or the damage to his reputation and livelihood, ever properly heal. After decades of exemplary practice – in the course of the investigation numerous colleagues testified to his unflappable expertise – Sellu has said that he has lost the heart ever to operate again.

All doctors kill people. Say we make 40 important decisions about patients in a working day: that’s roughly 10,000 per annum. No one is perfect, and medical dilemmas are frequently complex, but even if we are proved right 99 per cent of the time, that still leaves 100 choices every year where, with the benefit of hindsight, we were wrong.

Suppose 99 per cent of those have no negative consequences. That’s still one disaster every 12 months. And even if most of those don’t result in a fatal outcome, over the course of a career a few patients are – very regrettably – going to die as a result of our practice. Almost invariably, these fatalities occur under the care of highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in good faith to the very best of their abilities.

If one of these cases should come before a crown court, the jury needs meticulous direction from the trial judge on the legal threshold for a criminal act: in essence, if a doctor was clearly aware of, and recklessly indifferent to, the risk of death. Sellu’s conviction was quashed because the appeal court found that the judge in his trial had singularly failed to give the jury these directions. The judiciary make mistakes, too.

Prosecutions of health-care professionals for alleged GNM are increasing markedly. The Royal College of Surgeons of England identified ten cases in 2015 alone. This must reflect social trends – the so-called “blame culture”, in which we have come to believe that when a tragedy occurs, someone must be held responsible. In every one of these cases, of course, an individual’s life has been lost and a family left distraught; but there is a deepening sense in which society at large, and the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in particular, appear to be disconnected from the realities of medical practice.

Malpractice investigation and prosecution are horrendous ordeals for any individual. The cumulative impact on the wider health-care environment is equally serious. In a recent survey of doctors, 85 per cent of respondents admitted that they were less likely to be candid about mistakes, given the increasing involvement of the criminal law.

This is worrying, because the best way to avoid errors in future is by open discussion with the aim of learning from what has gone wrong. And all too often, severely adverse events point less to deficiencies on the part of individuals, and more to problems with systems. At Sellu’s hospital, emergency anaesthetic cover had to be arranged ad hoc, and this contributed to delays in potentially life-saving surgery. The tragic death of his patient highlighted this; management reacted by putting a formal rota system in place.

Doctors have long accepted the burden of civil litigation, and so insure themselves to cover claims for compensation. We are regulated by the General Medical Council, which has powers to protect patients from substandard practice, including striking off poorly performing doctors. The criminal law should remain an exceptional recourse.

We urgently need a thorough review of the legal grounds for a charge of GNM, with unambiguous directions to the police, CPS and judges, before the spectre of imprisonment becomes entrenched for those whose only concern is to provide good care for their patients. As Ken Woodburn, a consultant vascular surgeon in Cornwall who was accused and acquitted of GNM in 2001, has said: “You’re only ever one error away from a manslaughter prosecution.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage