What's the story?

Sultans of Spin

Nick Jones <em>Victor Gollancz, 298pp, £18.99</em>

"Not another Nick Jones book on spin-doctors," I said to the man from Publishing News at the launch party for Sultans of Spin. "Who on earth reads this rubbish?"

"Media-studies students," he said. If so, we shall soon have many ignorant students: books such as these make me regret my decision not to go into print.

I first met Nick Jones when he was a labour correspondent and I was a humble researcher for the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union. He had just recorded an interview with the president of the union, Terry Duffy. Duffy was not one of the most articulate union leaders I have met; in those days we did not have media training, and consequently the interview did not make much sense. This did not bother Jones, however, who, rather than inflict incoherent nonsense on the listeners, cut the interview so as to make Duffy sound more intelligent. This episode not only taught me an important little trick of the trade, it taught me never to take too seriously Jones's subsequent obsession with, and criticisms of, spin-doctors.

Today Jones is one of many BBC political correspondents who hang around Westminster following the news; they rarely break it. He is seldom seen on the main news bulletins, being largely consigned to radio programmes such as The World at One, whose editor was reported as saying that as there was no real opposition to the Labour government, he would have to supply it.

Jones was one of those reporters that I hardly spoke to in government; but when I did I enjoyed doing so because I knew that whatever I said would be faithfully recorded in his notebook for his next book on spin. I was particularly pleased that my account of Labour's euro policy appears in full, complete with expletives. I explained at the time that the policy had completely wrong-footed the Tories and that we had a policy that would last, at the same time ensuring that business supported Labour at the next election. Prior to Gordon Brown's statement in the House (Jones fails to mention that it received universal acclaim), the BBC had spent hundreds of hours of airtime reporting on the role of spin-doctors. The policy itself was hardly ever mentioned.

This book regurgitates all the tittle-tattle, rumours and, in some cases, complete lies about the events that led to the announcement of the euro policy. We are told how upset the political editor of the Telegraph was that Gordon Brown had given an interview on the euro to the Murdoch-owned Times. He should know, I suppose, since he is Jones's younger brother. It was this interview that caused the problems that led to what Jones calls the "euro fiasco".

The account of what happened next, obviously taken from press cuttings, bears little relation to the truth. I was, apparently, shouting into my mobile phone that Labour had a new policy on the euro. Had Jones bothered to ask any journalist present, he would have been told that this was not true; in fact, by the time I made it to the Red Lion, every journalist present knew of the Times interview and its contents. As Hugh Pym, former ITN political correspondent, says in his book on Labour's first year in the Treasury, all I ever said to journalists was that Phil Webster (the author of the Times story) was a reputable journalist - a fact that Jones could have confirmed by asking any of the journalists who phoned me. But doing so would have ruined his great yarn about how we "span out of control".

My favourite piece of nonsense, however, is the one saying that we conspired to give the story to the Murdoch-owned Sun, too. In fact, the political editor of the Sun happened to be playing golf with Phil Webster that day. Some conspiracy.

There is no doubt that we made a mistake over the presentation of our euro policy - something we have all since acknowledged on numerous occasions. We simply failed to understand that you do things differently in government from in opposition. That being said, we did learn our lesson. I am not sure the same can be said about Nick Jones. Alastair Campbell and I are often castigated for telling half-truths or even lying to the media, yet here we have a book that is quite prepared to take a sideswipe at spin-doctors, at the same time telling lies and half-truths about us.

The most surprising thing about Sultans of Spin, however, is that the BBC allowed Nick Jones to write it at all. I find it difficult to understand how he can do his job as BBC political correspondent and yet write such nonsense. His absolute obsession with spin must, surely, cloud his judgement. I first reviewed one of Jones's books when I was press officer at the AEEU. I always considered him an excellent broadcaster, and his coverage of the miners' strike was second to none. This book does him a disservice. Stick to your day job, Nick.

Charlie Whelan is a former press secretary to Gordon Brown

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes