Politics - Anne Perkins on the dark arts of news management
The dark arts of news management have been practised for years and by all parties. Yet Alastair Camp
It is a law of nature that Downing Street and the BBC are uncomfortable in each other's company. They are two near-monopolies, one in the supply of political news, the other in its consumption for broadcast, and for them to be on anything more than the terms of most formal courtesy would be a disaster for the rest of us.
Politicians always feel faintly aggrieved that parliament allows the BBC to tax the voters without a quid pro quo. The old struggle by politicians and officials to train the writing of journalists into willing conduits of friendly reportage takes on an extra edge when it is conducted with the BBC's extensive corps of political and specialist correspondents. But if it has reached unparalleled heights, it is far from a new phenomenon.
It is popular now to contrast Clement Attlee's government with Tony Blair's, to the detriment of the latter. No one doubts that Attlee himself was beyond media manipulation (an art requiring fluency which the prime minister left to others). Yet it is not hard to find specimens of the spinners' art emanating from his government a generation before the term was invented.
Take the story of how the dockers were tricked back to work. One Sunday afternoon in the late 1940s, the BBC duty editor's phone rang. It was the Foreign Office. The foreign secretary, aka the founder and former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Ernest Bevin, was anxious to know how the BBC planned to report the dockers' attitude to a return to work.
Earlier that day, an inconclusive vote had taken place. Bevin thought it was vital to Britain's economic well-being (and his government's survival) that the show of hands be reported as an overwhelming vote in favour of going back. But the BBC reporter who had been at the meeting thought the result inconclusive, and intended to say so. The duty editor rejected the offer of a conversation with the foreign secretary. Thwarted, Bevin found the BBC director general a more willing audience.
Soon, other weighty leaders from the world of labour were brought in to lean on the humble news team engaged in the final minutes of preparation for the six o'clock news. They capitulated. The vote was reported as Bevin wanted, the dockers went back to work, the economy began to pick up and Labour narrowly won the next election.
This tale perhaps belongs in the same category as a chancellor claiming the idea of devaluation has never troubled him when in fact he plans to slice 20 per cent off the value of the pound the moment the markets close: there are times when a politician is permitted to lie for his or her country. But every time the politician or his or her media alter ego succeeds in changing a journalist's view of the moment - by bullying, cajolery or bribery - another fairy of integrity falls lifeless to the ground.
Other political parties apply the techniques of news management just as assiduously as Labour does. Who knows what ideas might first have taken root in the mind of the young Alastair Campbell when he learnt that Margaret Thatcher's press secretary Bernard Ingham, describing the cabinet minister John Biffen as semi-detached, had pioneered the top-level unattributable smear. No doubt he reported with approval Biffen's counterblast that Ingham was "the sewer, not the sewage".
Yet somehow Campbell has helped bring the dark arts to a new pitch, strongly supported by a Labour administration most of whose influential members, even after six years in office, are still scarred by a political lifetime of own goals and malevolent misinterpretation. Sympathetic psychotherapists might deem such paranoia understandable. They might even explain the syndrome that leads to an inability to kick the habit even as it destroys the very thing by which it is justified - to win and retain power.
Surely, only complete barminess can account for the extraordinary way that each time a crisis caused by spin threatens Downing Street, the response is to spin some more. Indeed, often the arch-spinner himself leaps back into the centre to help plan the reaction, however recently he may have spoken in public of the need to abandon spin altogether.
As Blair stayed silent in Tokyo in the aftermath of the death of Dr David Kelly, Peter Mandelson went on the airwaves spearheading the attack on the BBC. Later it emerged that he had already discussed strategy with the PM; it seems, therefore, unlikely that the former Northern Ireland secretary was far away when the choice was made of the dry-as-dust Northern Irish judge, Lord Hutton, to head the rapidly announced inquiry.
It is the ultimate curiosity of a curious condition that the secretary to the Hutton inquiry, Lee Hughes, was a big cheese in an advisory group working to implement the Freedom of Information Act, which was introduced by the very people so anxious to monopolise information and hold it hostage against the good behaviour of the media.