Saturday, 12 May 2007

After spin

So far, Gordon Brown and his new website have been remarkably successful in shaping the way his campaign has been reported. Today, his top line is:
NHS an immediate priority
Gordon Brown today announces that the NHS will be an immediate priority, saying “we will do better”.
And sure enough, that's the line most journalists seem to be focusing on - a result, especially since that was the focus of 'interesting' Gordon on Today this morning. The focus of 'dour' Gordon was much more significant, though, and promises interesting, if not immediately amusing, times.

"I think we're going to have to have a better constitution. In other words, we're going to have to look at how the executive and all those who hold power should be held properly accountable to the people of this country. And I do want to conduct a debate in the country about how we can go forward with a better constitution for the future ..."
He cited - not for the first time - things like a new ministerial code and the right of Parliament to vote on peace or war ... both of which he's edged towards in previous briefings ... here, or here last September. It's linked to the notion that his time in office could be distinguished by a new approach both to government accountability and to the media. Perhaps even restoring the latter to a player in the former.

OK ... so Arctic Monkeys this isn't. One difference - it matters.

Charlie Beckett at POLIS has this extended post, his line that:
"It is one of the most majestic ironies of the New Labour years that the administration credited with the invention of spin is now threatened by a tidal wave of media hostility. Can Gordon Brown get his head back above water?"
Part of Gordon's problem, he diagnoses, is that he can't rely on everyone having a short memory:
"Brownites such as media consultant Scarlett McGwire claim he is man of integrity who will sweep the corridors of Whitehall clean of spin. Er… hang on a minute.
Brown’s original press man Charlie Whelan was one of the most ebullient exponents of the craft. He was often cavalier with veracity in the face of political danger ...
Our foremost chronicler of spin, Nick Jones, has described Brown as the greatest leaker of them all. Why should Brown change the habits of the last decade when he gets the top job?"
He concludes:
"The potential is there for a revived political culture. Can Gordon contribute?"
One former practitioner, John Williams who for half a dozen years was press secretary at the Foreign Office and before that a political correspondent on the Evening Standard, thinks at the very least he has a chance.

In a blog for the BBC College of Journalism - sadly, I can't link; it's still on an intranet site - John Williams writes;
"One of the first changes Gordon Brown should make is to end the culture of spin.
This is easily said. It is less easily defined. And it’s harder still to draft a programme for improvement."
In spite of the difficulty of a definition that separates presentation from spin, John Williams proposes these two criteria;
"over-statement that gives a false impression; uncheckable sources using anonymity in an underhand way. "
But that might not be all. he goes on;
"It would be good to have a debate on what else spin consists of, or if this definition is far too gentle."
His remedies?

"One: restore parliament as the place where government policy is first announced.
No more trailing in the Sundays or – sorry, BBC – in broadcast interviews. It would make an enormous difference to our political-media culture if we started tuning in to Commons statements and debates expecting to hear something important for the first time.

Two: reform political sourcing. Make clear to the media who are the two or three people genuinely close to each minister, authorised to speak on their behalf: say the press secretary, special advisor and perhaps parliamentary private secretary. Ministerial sources should be named. This could work only with media co-operation, but the media has an interest in more soundly-based news that the public can trust because it knows where it’s coming from. ‘A source authorised to speak on behalf of…’ is a formula I once used to tighten up Robin Cook’s media relations and it worked. It would be wonderful to see a newspaper report based on ‘a source not authorised, nor very close to, but freelancing for his/her own purposes.’

Three: Establish a respected, independent statistical service whose figures would have to be referred to, with footnotes, whenever a politician wants to give figures to back up an argument."

But there are problems. As Martin Moore posted a few days ago;
"it's not obvious there are many journalists out there still interested in the 'serious business of politics'. And those that are need to be convinced not just that Brown is telling the truth, but that he is willing to put up with people not liking his policies - i.e. engaging in a genuine debate, rather than trying to squash or square dissent."
I.e. there's no evidence that the the political press will drop the habits of spin ... because it's not in their interest to do it, culturally or competitively. Plus, it's difficult to envisage a day that the written press would adopt the 'on the record' default of the broadcasters - the stories are better with unnamed sources ... they're also less trusted, but hey ... memories are short and tomorrow's another day. The weird calculus that places the unnamed, interested source way ahead of the named, interested source is hard to shift.

But at the risk of seeming like a one string fiddle player, we either have to learn to live without a press that explains people to power and power to people - and the democratic deficit that inevitably accompanies it - or we have to change it. The demoticisation of publishing helps (if only by embarrassing the political press by contrasting with its villagey chumminess) ... but only so far.

What would take it much further would be a serious politician of any party who applied himself or herself to the task of remaking the links between the conversations people have and the politics they determine. And sure, that means kicking spin - as John Williams defines it - into touch; but it also means finding a way of weighing those conversations and producing politics and ideologies steered by that weight.

Parties and their annoying, troublesome constitutions used to do that. What's the new thing?

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