The original spin

Journalists are being spun big style; they cover Cameron as though he were PM-elect

Accustomed though I am to occasional populism, I found myself squirming away from the TV when David Cameron came on to announce his post-summer holiday Big Idea: lower salaries and more expensive chips for MPs.

It was not just the piddling nature of the proposals, which even Cameron called a "pinprick". More striking was the full-scale bells-and-whistles media operation, complete with BBC cameras popping in to watch him clear away the cereal boxes and urge his wife to "trust me" as he kissed her goodbye.

A former spin doctor, Cameron will have been happy with the outcome. Leading BBC bulletins, not bad print coverage, a bit sniffy in places, but hey, all things considered . . .All things considered, it was just the latest evidence of media double standards towards the two main party leaders. For Gordon Brown, any excuse for any abuse will do. For Cameron, "easy ride" does not begin to describe it.

Pot, kettle, black, say some, given my own involvement in the odd successful media hit. But - book plug essential here, I'm afraid - read my diaries. Every day in opposition was hard. And every day, the demands, expectations and intensity of scrutiny by the media were greater than anything Cameron has had to endure. His Bullingdon Club antics? Evidence not of elitism, privilege and weird values, but a sign that the public (as defined by the press) is ready to be ruled by toffs again. Drugs? He's decided not to answer, so let's stop asking. Expenses? Let's cover the tough noises he makes about others, and park his own taxpayer-funded mortgage.

As for policy, why should we press him to spell it all out? Doesn't it just show how clever he is not to open himself to scrutiny? Let's not worry too much about what might have happened had Britain adopted his do-nothing approach to the global financial crisis. Take as read his desire to help middle-income families, and don't tell anyone he wants to remove tax credits that might help them. Keep trotting out the pictures of him leading the huskies in the Arctic and overlook Tory councils turning down application after application for "bird blenders", as Cameron calls windfarms. As for Europe, OK, he might have got into bed with a bunch of racists, homophobes, climate-change deniers and extremists, but that won't damage Britain's influence in Europe . . . er, will it?

The Tories like to say they model much of their strategy on what Tony Blair did to modernise the Labour Party. But while words, branding and photo ops were important for us, the hard yards were won not by PR puffery, but by difficult policy decisions that showed the public we had got the message of successive defeats, and had changed.

Ask Tories how Cameron has changed the party and they tend to say he's got them ahead in the polls. Fair enough. Ask journalists and they will happily regurgitate the line from Central Office about detoxifying the brand. Ask a member of the public what, if any, policy proposals have been made to indicate change, and they could be forgiven for knowing of none. I don't mean not many. I mean none.

Scratch beneath the poll headlines a little, and Cameron's main problem with the public remains lack of substance. His strategy seems to compound that, yet still the analysis by the media remains soft.

Try to imagine what the media would have done to Neil Kinnock's Labour Party if it had been unable to say what it intended to do on tax, or how much it intended to spend on which public services. Imagine a Kinnock-led party with a European policy seen as misguided by virtually every major power in the world. Imagine a Kinnock-led Labour Party whose shadow cabinet was as unknown as the current Tory one.

This is not a call on the media to be anti-Tory in the way the press was virulently anti-Labour then. But it is an attempt to ask why so many journalists appear to have suspended the kind of critical analysis normally applied to the opposition.

General support from papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, given their avowed right-wing position and hatred of New Labour, is at least explicable. For the Murdoch stable, not only is there the usual pragmatic analysis of who it thinks might win, but its world-view tends to veer to the right. Much odder is the way parts of the left-wing press have fallen under Cameron's spell, buying the line that he has progressive goals, when speech after speech - once you get past the cutesy headline - and Commons vote after Commons vote exposes the opposite. Even more striking is the way broadcasters cover him as though he were PM-elect, not an opposition leader whose words and actions should be approached with at least the same level of scepticism and inquiry as the government's are.

This is not just about the media. Labour also needs to do a far better job of getting after him. It is not simply what happens at PMQs that matters, hugely important though those exchanges are in setting the strategic lines for the election. He and his colleagues have to start feeling pressure from every level of the Labour Party. That task would be easier if MPs with an eye on future leadership contests rather than the general elections stopped spreading the message that nothing has been achieved, that the country hasn't changed, that in effect we have failed. It helps nobody but Cameron. And it's not true.

People say they don't like negative campaigning. But there are three planks to any campaign: setting out a forward agenda, defending the record, and attacking your opponents. All are essential. All have to be done with verve and vigour. And on all three, Labour has the makings of a strong position. So, as Andrew Rawnsley has written, if the media won't do their job properly (I paraphrase here), Labour needs to be even better at carrying out those tasks. Policy. Defence. Attack.

Journalists, particularly after so-called Labour spin, like to pride themselves on their refusal to be spun. They are being spun big style; what they write is informed by their view that Cameron has won. Anything that points in that direction is news. Anything that doesn't, isn't. If he does win, he will do so as the most underexamined, under-scrutinised, untested and policy-lite leader in history, aided and abetted by an army of willing self-spinners dotted around the papers and the broadcast stations, who by their indifference to genuine scrutiny help him every day.

Alastair Campbell guest-edited our issue of 23 March. You can read it here

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.