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Journalists helped create Mr Brown’s spin machine

Posted by Richard D North in Interrogating the Media / Media / Truth & Trust on 18 April 2009

Why we posted this: Politics and politicians in the UK are mostly decent and public-spirited. So it profoundly matters that journalists should tell us more of what they know about the skullduggery at the heart of Westminster.

The original story:

Why did so few stand up to the spin machine?
Guido Fawkes
The Times
17 April 2009

Summary of the story:

Guido Fawkes gives his side of his exposure of Damian McBride (a senior aide to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown) and the “dirty tricks” media campaign he seems to have proposed for the Reg Rag website which was allegedly to be launched by Derek Draper, an erstwhile New Labour media man.

In particular Fawkes takes the mainstream media to task for knowing that there was a poisonous media operation at the heart of government but keeping it under their hats.

Here is a key quote from the piece:

The explosive proof of a smear and spin operation in the heart of Downing Street was met with a universal lack of surprise inside the Westminster village. Everyone who was interested knew it existed. Labour Party rivals to Gordon Brown had long been on the receiving end of poisonous briefings retold by pliant lobby correspondents.

livingissues comment:

It is hard to dispute that the political media is part of a noxious world at the heart of British life. Perhaps inevitably, there is an important cadre of journalists whose entire career depends on their being “in” with ministers and the spin doctors who control the flow of information out of Number 10, Westminster and the ministries. They are in an invidious position.

Tellingly, when a corner of the carpet is lifted (as by Guido Fawkes) journalists then pop up to say they knew this sort of all along. In this case, one such was James Blitz in the Financial Times who told us that he had known for years that Mr McBride was out of order much of the time.

There are two ways to go on this.

One could argue, as Mr Blitz implies, that this new smear campaign by Mr McBride was of a different order to his earlier poor behaviour. That carries the implication that it might have been wrong to expose Mr McBride’s earlier behaviour and that it is right to expose him now. Besides, spin masters and journalists have to be able to communicate in an off-the-record way, so it is very likely that these channels may sometimes be very colourful without – say – a bit of bad language in a conversation being much of a scandal,

But, alternatively, one is very tempted to see the journalists’ behaviour in a more severe light. This is Guido Fawkes’s line and in his case it is not without self-interest and self-promotion.

It is very possible to argue that the New Labour administration has been bad for government because it has been so good at manipulating the media. In the end, of course, the machinery has been exposed. It happened first with Mr Blair, whose work with Alistair Campbell, his press officer, was detected and analysed. Mr Brown’s media operation was in a way both more brutal and more subtle. His spokesmen seem to have been if anything rather rougher than Mr Campbell. But they also more successfully “spun” Mr Brown as intellectual, moral, and solid. In short, they span Mr Brown as not needing spin. It has taken a while for it to become clear that the “real” Mr Brown may be a very complicated mixture of rootedness and storminess, and profoundly interested in the frothy world of perception.

The issue is whether the media has been any good at conveying how poisonous things had become. One way into this is to insist that the personal and the party political be kept separate from the formal and the institutional. Sue Cameron, in the FT, draws this distinction and makes it stick by saying that the tax-payer should only pay for employees – for officials – whose function is highly respectable and in (to use an old-fashioned formulation) the service of the Crown.

The merit of this approach is to recognise that politicians may be vicious, scurrilous, neurotic, gossipy, profane and malicious, but when they put people to work on their behalf in this vein, they or their political party should pay for it. The State, the Nation and the Crown should be kept well away from this sort of thing.

Actually, “special advisers” like Mr McBride always were supposed to steer away from party-political spinning. The Civil Service has just re-iterated the distinction. From now on, the test of whether journalists are doing their own job will be whether they police those old decencies the way they were supposed to all along.

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