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    New Labour's fatal flaw: an addiction to spin

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    Nicholas Jones

    DATELINE: 7/10/13

    All honour to ex-spin doctor Damian McBride, writes Nicholas Jones in his review of McBride's new book, for trying to shield Gordon Brown from any blame for the numerous attempts he made to smear political colleagues and opponents of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. But Brown, like Tony Blair before him, cannot shirk responsibility for having encouraged a culture which created a generation of aggressive attack dogs for whom un-attributable briefings became a way of life.

    Both Prime Ministers could easily have reined in their aides and advisers from the start if they too had not been so addicted to spin and the manipulation of the news media.

    'Power Trip', McBride's insider account of his days as Brown's chief spin doctor is another warts-and-all tale of the dark arts of British politics and one of the least attractive aspects of the Blair-Brown legacy.

    New Labour's all-consuming desire to manipulate political news reporting dated back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when Blair and Brown were up and coming members of Labour's front bench team.

    Jockeying for the best possible result in the annual elections to the shadow cabinet was the only game in Westminster for the party's rising stars and their determination to promote themselves at the expense of their rivals was aided and abetted by profound changes which were taking place in the coverage of politics.

    Labour's eighteen years in Opposition spanned a period of rapid expansion in media outlets and the creation of many new opportunities to influence journalists.  

    New radio and television stations were offering almost limitless airtime, heralding the start of 24-hour news.  Having been forced to retreat from the days when they largely reported who said what and to whom, in government and in Parliament, newspapers began switching their attention increasingly from politics to personalities.

    Interviews with politicians, profiles, diaries, guest columns and the like took the place of much of the heavy-weight reporting and the press corps developed an insatiable appetite for political gossip and Westminster infighting and back-stabbing.

    Even though Blair later scrapped the shadow cabinet elections, bad habits had been acquired; the New Labour hierarchy and their multiplying aides had become addicts, adept at spinning stories to promote themselves or damage their opponents.

    Spinmeisters such as Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan knew precisely which buttons to press but unlike Damian McBride do not seem to have had a crisis of conscience and haven't so far felt the need to seek redemption by owning up to their all-too frequent nefarious and invariably anonymous briefings.

    Out of deep-seated loyalty they all took inordinate risks and from my own bruising encounters with both Blair and Brown I know they were only too well aware of what was being briefed in their name; out of political expediency they looked the other way.

    Several episodes recounted in 'Power Trip' reveal that McBride, or McPoison as he was known among lobby journalists, was Brown's willing pupil.  He recalls a sequence of events at the 2007 party conference when the new Prime Minister was anxious to distract attention from speculation about a snap general election.

    "Build up the young guys," he said. "Build it up into a beauty contest about who'll take over from me."  Here was Brown suggesting a replay of the routines he engaged in as a rising front bencher when he was hoping to top the poll in the shadow cabinet elections.

    Brown's compulsion to leak exclusive stories – a trick which he turned into an art form as Chancellor when promoting his Budgets – was also a skill which McBride acquired.  He described how at the Treasury he went through the Chancellor's office emails looking for up and coming announcements which he could trail in advance or perhaps leak in order to create confusion.

    McBride does deserve to be congratulated on his double-edged declaration that Brown was unaware of the way he routinely discredited opponents by tipping off newspapers about "drug use, spousal abuse, alcoholism or extra-marital affairs". Everything he did as a spin doctor he did out of devotion and loyalty:

    "Some people will undoubtedly wonder why – if Gordon knew I was guilty of misbehaviour – he never either formally reined me in or had me moved on. And my answer to that is simply that there was something unspoken between us.

    "Not what people imagine, that he would mutter under his breath about turbulent priests and hope that I would do his bidding, but the opposite. The unspoken word was from me to him, and said: 'Don't question my methods.'

    "I offered him the best press he could hope for, unrivalled intelligence about what was going on in the media and access to parts of the press that no other Labour politician could reach. And my attack operations against his Labour rivals and Tory enemies were usually both effective and feared, with me willingly taking all the potential risk and blame.

    "What I expected in return was simply to have the freedom to take the necessary steps to cultivate those media relationships, whatever that entailed."

    McBride's confessional is mirrored to some degree by a more limited mea culpa by Blair's former director of strategic communications, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser who has published Downing Street emails which chart the rearguard battle to prevent Blair being ousted from No.10 in September 2006  and his aides desperate attempts to prevent the Prime Minister having to endorse Brown. (The Guardian, 20.9.2013)

    Wegg-Prosser says that if Ed Miliband wins the 2015 general election, he should "consider how the errors of the last generation should not be repeated by his":

    "Drawing a line in the sand with the nastier politics of the Blair and Brown era, but not the sound policies, would be my suggestion."

    Ed Miliband picked up on this plea when interviewed at Brighton at the start of Labour's annual conference (The Andrew Marr Show, 22.9.2013).  He said that McBride's book was a reminder that the Labour Party and Labour in government must have no factions and no briefings.  "I said that from day one on becoming leader...learning lessons from the past is the way we run the Labour Party."

    I hope that lesson is well and truly learned by Miliband's media aides. One of the destructive ploys of the Blairite and Brownite spin doctors was their attempt to destabilise journalists whom they considered unhelpful.

    Many was the time I found that complaints had been made about my reporting for the BBC.  I had made myself a target because of my determination to pull back the curtain on their dark arts.  

    But it did not help my relations with the BBC's editorial management to find that complaints were being lodged about my "inaccurate and biased reporting"; my "unreliable short hand note"; and other equally corrosive suggestions which only served to undermine internal BBC confidence in the objectivity of my reporting.

    Having been described as "that tick* Nick Jones" in Alastair Campbell's diaries when he complained about me being sent by the BBC to interview Tony Blair, I perhaps need to say no more about the skulduggery of Blairite and Brownite spin doctors and the vacuous nature of the New Labour branding.

    * tick "parasitic insect... unpleasant or despicable person" (Oxford English Dictionary)

    Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, by Damian McBride, published by Biteback



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    Last modified: Tuesday, December 17, 2013

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  • Notices

    Events & Announcements

    Miners strike - Thatcher's lies and still no justice


    DATELINE: 25/3/14
    When the 1984 Cabinet papers concerning the miners strike of 30 years ago, were released this January, a gripping account was laid bare of the secret steps taken by Margaret Thatcher to break the strike, and the lies told to the nation. As the then Prime Minister micromanaged the government's authoritarian response to the strikers, including the brutal police responses, and hiding the truth surrounding the planned number of pit closure, a new book reveals there's still no justice.
    » Read on


    You are invited to a screening of Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary,


    DATELINE: 4/4/14

    A film by STEPHEN VITTORIA (Documentary/USA 2012.Wednesday 30 April 2014 at 6 p.m.School of Law, University of Westminster, 4, Little Titchfield Street, London W1W 7UW.The documentary follows the extraordinary journey of the journalist and revolutionary Mumia Abu- Jamal, who was imprisoned in solitary confinement on death row in Pennsylvania, USA for 30 years.The screening will be followed by a panel discussion and Q & A.The event is free but RSVP is required. Please RSVP Nicola Laing at N.Laing@westminster.ac.uk  


    Public Meeting Tuesday 29 April


    DATELINE: 31/3/14
    Revealing Truths - Just how free is the press today?
    7.30 pm- 9.00pm
    Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester.
    Speakers: Granville Williams (CPBF)
    Stephen Kingston (Salford Star editor)Free entry.
    Organised by the Mary Quaile Club
    http://maryquaileclub.wordpress.com
    email: maryquaileclub@gmail.com 
    » Read on
    Diary date Saturday 21 June


    DATELINE: 10/3/14
    CPBF Annual General Meeting
    10am – 12.30pm NUJ HQ, 308 Gray's Inn Road
    London  WC1. (Tube/trains Kings Cross/St Pancras.)
    Election of national council, report on activities, debates.
    Deadlines - Nominations for the national council 6 June.
    AGM motions 13 June. Further details CPBF office.
    Email freepress@cpbf.org.uk 
    » Read on
    DOWNLOAD FREEPRESS NOW

    DATELINE: 26/3/10
    Download Freepress in PDF, ePub or mobi format. Issues 197 and 198 are now available in PDF format only.
    » Read on
    MEDIA FOR ALL CONFERENCE

    DATELINE: 26/3/10
    Papers from the Media for All Conference


    MEDIA MANIFESTO

    DATELINE: 26/3/10
    The media’s job is to inform and entertain us but we rely on them too to tell us what our rulers and representatives are up to. In the run-up to the Iraq war the government used spin and disinformation in the media to create panic and mislead people. The truth is coming out now, but we need stronger, more independent media to be able to scrutinise governments and make informed choices.
    » Read on

  • Previous stories

Extras

Campaign blogs:

The Miller's tale

posted by: Jonathan Heawood


DATELINE: 5/4/14
Maria Miller (pictured) has been found culpable by an MPs' committee of over claiming expenses on her London home, and of failing to co-operate with the committee's inquiry. She has been asked to apologise to the House of Commons and she has duly apologised, albeit tersely. Her political fate hangs in the balance....

» Read on


London Live goes live

posted by: Jonathan Hardy


DATELINE: 31/3/14
London's new local television channel, London Live is due to launch on the 31st of March. Its owner also owns the city's largest circulation local newspaper and two national newspapers. University of East London's Jonathan Hardy discusses the implications for media plurality arguing that the key question is how the new service will be regulated....

» Read on


Still settling scores

posted by: Granville Williams


DATELINE: 31/3/14
It is always educative to get out and about a bit. I've certainly been doing that this month promoting my new book Settling Scores: The Media, the Police and the Miners' Strike (http://www.cpbf.org.uk//) published for the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike....

» Read on


Newspapers exploit Lawrence case

posted by: Brian Cathcart


DATELINE: 16/3/14

We could be forgiven for thinking it was a default procedure these days at the Daily Mail: when an editorial writer gets to the final few paragraphs about almost any subject, he or she strains to find a way to blame it all on Sir Brian Leveson....

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Absent voice of Arthur Scargill

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 7/2/14
Margaret Thatcher's cabinet papers for the 1984-5 miners' strike have raised as many questions as answers - not least about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police - but once again a missing voice has been that of Arthur Scargill....

» Read on


Euro-electorate in the dark

posted by: Granville Williams


DATELINE: 28/1/14
As the European Elections loom on 22 May 2014 how well-informed will the UK electorate be when they put their crosses on the ballot papers? Not very, I’m afraid....

» Read on


A Pantomime of Deceit and Disinformation

posted by: Julian Petley


DATELINE: 16/12/13
By rejecting the Royal Charter, the majority of the British press has  done exactly the opposite of what it claims it wants to achieve: keep  politicians out of press regulation......

» Read on


Journalists in the dock

posted by: Justin Schlosberg


DATELINE: 6/12/13
A little over two months ago, the Daily Mail ran an editorial describing the leader of the Labour Party's father as 'the man who hated Britain'. Although that article was widely criticised in the broader media and by politicians of all colours, it is difficult to imagine that Keith Vaz would have posed his question had that article never appeared....

» Read on


Justice and journalism both on trial

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 29/11/13
Independent front page October 2013As the prosecution continues to present its evidence at the Old Bailey in the case alleging phone hacking and the bribing of public officials, it is becoming increasingly clear that not only is British justice on trial but also journalism itself....

» Read on


Lobbyists: seven key myths

posted by: Tamasin Cave, Spinwatch


DATELINE: 20/11/13
This month's Lords debate on the Lobbying Bill included a statement by Lord Wallace for the government on why it is refusing to introduce a more comprehensive register of lobbyists....

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How Twitter tames the Mail

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 29/10/13
While the Daily Mail's editor Paul Dacre continues to lick his wounds after a mauling at the hands of what he derides as the "Twitter mob", his headline writers have had no alternative but to accept the power of social media....

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When Harry Met Rupert

posted by: Barry White


DATELINE: 28/10/13
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"How much?" "What's it worth?": Murdoch's local news legacy

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 21/10/13

Across the country local press reporters will have every reason to reflect on the long-term impact of Rupert Murdoch's forty-year stewardship of some of Britain's most popular daily and Sunday newspapers....

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DATELINE: 14/10/13

After a decade or more of cuts and job losses a growing digital audience is holding out the prospect that local newspapers might soon be reaching a tipping point when online income outweighs the loss of print advertising....

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posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 11/10/13
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McBride's willing accomplices escape scrutiny

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 7/10/13
All too many political journalists were as complicit as the ex-spin doctor Damian McBride in helping to propagate his smear stories about the ministerial colleagues and opponents of the former Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown....

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DATELINE: 22/9/13
The name of the operation is Rock the BBC. Bother them, get them on Prozac, looking over their shoulders all the time. MPs and government and rival media are at it all the time....

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Events & announcements


You are invited to a screening of Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary,


DATELINE: 4/4/14

A film by STEPHEN VITTORIA (Documentary/USA 2012.Wednesday 30 April 2014 at 6 p.m.School of Law, University of Westminster, 4, Little Titchfield Street, London W1W 7UW.The documentary follows the extraordinary journey of the journalist and revolutionary Mumia Abu- Jamal, who was imprisoned in solitary confinement on death row in Pennsylvania, USA for 30 years.The screening will be followed by a panel discussion and Q & A.The event is free but RSVP is required. Please RSVP Nicola Laing at N.Laing@westminster.ac.uk  


Public Meeting Tuesday 29 April


DATELINE: 31/3/14
Revealing Truths - Just how free is the press today?
7.30 pm- 9.00pm
Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester.
Speakers: Granville Williams (CPBF)
Stephen Kingston (Salford Star editor)Free entry.
Organised by the Mary Quaile Club
http://maryquaileclub.wordpress.com
email: maryquaileclub@gmail.com 
» Read on
Diary date Saturday 21 June


DATELINE: 10/3/14
CPBF Annual General Meeting
10am – 12.30pm NUJ HQ, 308 Gray's Inn Road
London  WC1. (Tube/trains Kings Cross/St Pancras.)
Election of national council, report on activities, debates.
Deadlines - Nominations for the national council 6 June.
AGM motions 13 June. Further details CPBF office.
Email freepress@cpbf.org.uk 
» Read on
DOWNLOAD FREEPRESS NOW

DATELINE: 26/3/10
Download Freepress in PDF, ePub or mobi format. Issues 197 and 198 are now available in PDF format only.
» Read on
MEDIA FOR ALL CONFERENCE

DATELINE: 26/3/10
Papers from the Media for All Conference


MEDIA MANIFESTO

DATELINE: 26/3/10
The media’s job is to inform and entertain us but we rely on them too to tell us what our rulers and representatives are up to. In the run-up to the Iraq war the government used spin and disinformation in the media to create panic and mislead people. The truth is coming out now, but we need stronger, more independent media to be able to scrutinise governments and make informed choices.
» Read on