Don't worry about spin, the public has an inbuilt crap detector

Media - Bill Hagerty

It has been a bad week for Dr Spin. So sickly has he looked at times that it seemed the attentions of a physician of the non-spin variety might be required. First Spin had his nose bloodied by Ken Follett's attack on "the rent boys of politics" - hardly the way eminent practitioners of spinnery expect to be described - and was then further buffeted by, among others, Andy Wood, a former Downing Street press officer writing in the Daily Mail, who decried the operations performed by such prominent consultants as Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell as "cynical, divisive and malign". It's a wonder Spin didn't take to his bed.

But I have cheering news for the crocked doc. Away from the media frenzy - out in the real world, where the content of the millions of newspapers still devoured each day and the news gleaned from radio and television bulletins is fuel for discussion on buses, trains and in pubs - spin is not ailing. Just as the phrase "spin-doctor" has been assimilated into our language, spin itself has oiled its way into our culture with hardly a cough or a spit.

On Tuesday, I took part in a discussion in Committee Room 10 at the House of Commons, where the Joint Industry Committee for Regional Press Research sponsored a debate on why "you shouldn't believe what you read in the popular press". I supported Mike Molloy, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, in speaking to the motion, while the newspaper lawyer Charles Collier-Wright and the political commentator Julia Langdon were in opposition. Molloy and I won handsomely, but it was the contribution made by members of the debating group that emphasised how the public has come to terms with those wily doctors.

In my address, I pointed out that spin is by no means new and that newspapers have been employing it for years. It is spin - bias, prejudice, what you will - and not error of fact, lamentable but easily corrected, that renders much of what we read in the papers unbelievable.

In an interview that I conducted recently for the British Journalism Review, Alastair Campbell spoke vehemently about "journalist spin-doctors", unscrupulous political hacks with scant regard for the truth who are willing to invent quotes or, indeed, entire stories. "Pot" and "kettle" may be words that spring to mind here, but Campbell claims that, when he was a political journalist, he would sometimes lie awake at night worrying that he had got a story wrong. He believes that few journalists today toss restlessly, heads uneasy on their pillows, because of such considerations.

It became immediately clear when the debate was thrown open to the floor that many of those present were perfectly aware that much of what they read in the press - they took issue with the word "popular" being used in the motion, believing the unpopular press to be every bit as guilty - was spun with the ferocity, if not the subtlety, of the Australian bowler Shane Warne. But they did not care very much. Each of them had developed their own, inbuilt spin-detector with which to sort the wheat from the chaff, the correct from the crap.

What's more, so used to spin is the public, it seems, that it can, when necessary, believe the most blatant examples of it if it so suits. A teenage contributor to the debate recalled a headline announcing that the footballing superstar David Beckham was to be transferred for some vast sum from Manchester United to Arsenal, which was patently speculative to the point of being ludicrous. But his friend, a passionate Arsenal fan, chose to believe it. He wanted it to be true and, therefore, it would be until proven otherwise.

What an astonishing scenario this reveals, if those members of the debating group are representative of the country as a whole. In expecting politicians, spin-doctors and the press to distort the truth and believing nothing it is told unless is satisfies a personal prejudice or desire, the public is recognising that spin is here to stay - and thumbing its nose at it.

So fret not, Dr Spin. Whether you operate in the Julius Caesar environment of contemporary British politics - "Et tu, Follett?" - or swim in the murky waters of modern newspaper journalism, your future is assured. Malice towards you lurks only in the black hearts of your fellow physicians. "Truth exists; only lies are invented," wrote Georges Braque, the French painter. Now ain't that the truth.

In 1992, David Montgomery began his cleansing of the Mirror Group by removing me from the editorship of the People. Two days later, Richard Stott, the accomplished editor of the Daily Mirror, was on his way, and many other talented Mirror loyalists soon followed, as Montgomery set about eradicating the past.

So I can be forgiven the sense of deja vu when, in reverse order to Montgomery, Rebekah Wade dispensed with Stott and myself in her first significant moves since assuming the editorship of the News of the World six weeks ago. This was most unnerving: are we forever now to be fired in tandem?

I cannot pretend that the loss of my weekly column of theatre criticism will result in a plunge in the circulation of the paper, but Stott's punchy, provocative column had grown in stature and provided the News of the World with a voice uninfluenced by spin, no matter from where it might be spun. It attracted favourable comment, often from those who had not been previously attracted to the Screws.

If speculation that Stott is to be replaced by a more "on message", government-friendly columnist is correct, the new editor has, in my view, taken a step in the wrong direction. The jury awaits with interest the rest of the Wade revolution.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit