Here today, gone tomorrow

The Wages of Spin

Bernard Ingham <em>John Murray, 288pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0719564816

There is an important book waiting to be written about the changing relationship between the media and politicians, the difference between spin and information, and the supposed politicisation of the civil service. The Wages of Spin is not that book. It's not an especially bad book, just not a very good one. The first third is a relatively well-written history of political reporting. The rest is a rather dull, self-justificatory account of Ingham's time as Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, and a trite, predictable attack on how everything has collapsed since the good old days when Ingham did things properly, with the takeover by those nasty, brutish new Labour types. Yawn.

Ingham has carved out a "blunt Yorkshireman" career since leaving No 10, and we know before even opening the book what he's going to say. Let me save you reading the 247 pages and summarise his views on new Labour and spin: there's too much of it. And that's about it.

A large part of his thesis is that, as he puts it, "spin doctors . . . exercise inordinate influence at the heart of No 10 and ministerial teams in a government led by a media-mad Prime Minister. The central power of Campbell was demonstrated by his routine presence at cabinet meetings (which I never attended) . . ." The only problem with that accusation is that earlier in the book Ingham has reprinted a memo written by him in 1988 to Sir Nigel Wicks, then Baroness Thatcher's principal private secretary, complaining that "my exclusion from meetings stemmed from a mistaken view of presentation . . . It would pay enormous dividends if I could attend more of those meetings where an issue is coming to a head and in which presentation is an important matter."

It's fine if Sir Bernard's doing it, but not if it's one of those new Labour chappies. Instead of merely asserting that it's wrong for Campbell to be so deeply embedded at the heart of government, for the Government Information Service to have been politicised, for special advisers to have extended their role into press liaison, and for presentation to have sometimes become indistinguishable from policy-making, it would have been far more interesting to ask whether or not Labour's undoubted politicisation is not a more appropriate response to the modern media and political world.

At the most prosaic level, any journalist has experience of how bad some press officers can be. Forget not returning phone calls, which Ingham seems to think is a hanging offence, the real problem is that the civil service press officer is rarely happy to go beyond the words contained in a press release or announcement. For anything deeper, one has, more often than not, to talk to a special adviser, who knows and can interpret the ministerial mind because he or she has been chosen directly by the minister to do that job. But put that person alongside - even in charge of - career civil servant press officers and, hey presto, you have committed the unforgivable sin of politicising the civil service.

Focusing on politicisation misses the point. The real issue is trustworthiness and competence. Every journalist has their own list of special advisers worth talking to because they understand the issues, who are - up to a point - frank about the politics, whose spin is within the bounds of reliability. Correspondingly, we all know who is unreliable, who will distort for short-term gain, and who is, in the end, untrustworthy. They get found out. The good ones know it, and don't do it. The bad ones do, and it backfires on them.

But the real issue goes far beyond press officers and spin, and goes to the very role of the civil service. Ministers are, as Sir Robin Day put it to Sir John Nott, "here today, gone tomorrow". The department remains, no matter which ephemeral figure happens to be its titular head. Special advisers are, as governments of all persuasion long ago recognised, an essential tool for a minister. There are special advisers - political appointees, shock horror - who really do specially advise on policy, who don't deal with the press, who play a straight bat when they meet a journalist and who simply get on with their job. But we rarely hear about them because there's no story in "Minister Advised What to Do by Trusted Ally Shock".

One cabinet minister told me recently that, on assuming office, he asked his department to implement a manifesto pledge. "I'm afraid, minister," he was told, "that goes against departmental policy." Is that really the world we want to preserve?

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2003 issue of the New Statesman, A crime against humanity