All you need is a message

What is most striking about the evidence given to the Hutton inquiry - which was due to hear from Tony Blair after we went to press - is its demonstration of how central the media have become to policy-making. Previous governments were apt to dismiss journalists as mere scribblers whose ramblings were of little importance. Mr Blair's circle takes what they write with deadly seriousness. For example, Jonathan Powell, the PM's chief of staff, suggests in an e-mail that part of the September 2002 dossier should be rewritten because "it backs up the Don McIntyre [he means Donald Macintyre, the Independent columnist] argument that there . . . is no threat and we will only create one if we attack him [Saddam Hussein]". On another occasion, he demands to know what headline the London Evening Standard is likely to use when the dossier comes out.

Running through these e-mails and memos is a fear not so much about whether the government is doing the right things, but about whether they will look right. The impression is of ministers and officials imagining themselves in constant dialogue with the media, almost like children trying to placate a bogeyman. The Hutton evidence suggests this government really does treat the press more seriously than it treats the official parliamentary opposition - or, for that matter, the constitutional organs of its own party. Labour ministers once trembled before meetings of the National Executive Committee; now they quake when the first editions arrive.

The whole Kelly affair, indeed, hinges on the government's obsession with the BBC's attempt to discredit its dossier - an obsession that continues long after the dossier has seemed in any case discredited by events. On hearing Andrew Gilligan's broadcast comments, ministers might have worried about the potential threat to national security. Who in the intelligence services was gossiping, and to whom? What other secrets were they leaking, and how widely? But such questions do not seem to have occurred to Mr Blair and his circle. Like the heroines of Victorian novels, they are concerned about the threat to their reputations. Equally, if it is true that the intelligence agencies were themselves responsible for the dossier, ministers might wonder why they got it so badly wrong and whether they may get it equally wrong about, say, Iran. But no, the entire weight of the government machine concentrates on proving that Downing Street itself did not falsify the case for war.

When critics talk of "spin", they usually mean that ministers and their aides deliberately lie and mislead. But this is not the point. Far more important is the way policies are actually ruled out because they involve presentational difficulties.

Take the decision, reached early in the government's life, that students should pay more towards the costs of their courses. The simplest and fairest way of doing this was to levy a tax on graduate earnings so that payments were related to the economic benefits derived from going to university. But this was ruled out mainly because new Labour did not want to be seen imposing new taxes. Instead, it invented a complex scheme designed to achieve the same ends, but with students paying upfront fees at 18 through loans whose repayment was contingent on later income. Only now, having learned that the idea of young people incurring "a burden of debt" is more unpopular than taxation, has the government dared to introduce something like a graduate tax, and to call it that. Consider also new Labour's approach to crime, memorably summed up in a leaked prime ministerial memo which stated that "we should think now of an initiative, eg, locking up street muggers: something tough with immediate bite".

The distorting effects of its presentational preoccupations were there from the start of new Labour's rule. In 1997, it promised to stick initially to Tory spending plans - not because it thought they were right but because it wanted to shed the old Labour image of recklessness. This time, by contrast, Mr Blair did believe he was right and, because he thinks wars should be fought to overthrow tyrants, he will believe it to his dying day. But the narrative he had to sell the British public was that Saddam was an imminent and deadly threat and, in selling it, he managed to convince not only himself but also, it seems, the intelligence services.

Like nearly everybody else in Whitehall (see Anne Perkins, page 7), intelligence chiefs have learned to tell their masters roughly what they want to hear. That is what is truly shocking. John Scarlett, the spymaster, crucial to national security, himself became an agent of spin. Thus the medium is the message and the message is now the whole point of government.

The great quest

The French may be despised for their cowardly reluctance to support wars. But the frog-eaters have a secret that Americans are desperate to unearth: how do they get away with eating so much Camembert, croissant and confit of duck while keeping slim? US scientists, defeated in the search for Iraqi WMDs, will not give up on this. A team in Philadelphia suggests the French just eat less. After arduous research in the two countries, it reports that restaurant portions in the US are 25 per cent larger, and hot dogs 63 per cent larger. A separate team, involving top brains at Harvard Medical School, announces that the secret lies in red wine - though only the French, not the Californian or Australian, variety. But are Americans capable of cracking the secrets of Gallic life? "One glass of red wine a day is a good recommendation," says a Harvard medic. "That's what I do now." Just one?

Next Article