Thursday, 10 March 2011

Spin-doctors, PR and politics

The word 'spin-doctor' seems to have originated in the United States and probably comes from baseball. However, the first definition of 'spin-doctor' as how we know it currently dates back to 1977 and appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as "a person who provides a favourable slant to an item of news, potentially unpopular policy etcetera, especially on behalf of a political personality or party".

The term 'spin-doctor' started to be used in Britain in the 90s and was associated with the rise of public appearance of Peter Mandelson and other New Labour media experts, with Alastair Campbell as its main figure.  Alastair Campbell was the Director of Communications and Strategy for Tony Blair between 1997 and 2003 and was considered to be one of the greatest 'spin-doctors' in British politics. 

Alastair Campbell
He is said to have manipulated the press during his time working for Downing Street and to have used journalists to communicate the news he wanted to. However, he also revolutionised political communications in the UK. He managed that tabloids supported the Labour Party and also kept lobby journalists informed more than his predecesors; he established two daily briefings, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Campbell resigned after the death of civil servant Dr Kelly who appeared death after it was leaked that it was him who talked to the BBC and told them that no weapons of mass destruction were to be found in Iraq and that the government had inserted false intelligence into the dossier presented to defend the reasons for the war. Many believed that it was Campbell who had rewritten the dossier but it was never proved. 

On 1 March the University of Westminster held a debate around the motion: Have PR and spin undermined trust in politics? Kevin Maguire, political journalist of the Daily Mirror, and Sheila Gunn, fomer political journalist and spokesperson for John Mayor, argued that Public Relations and spin had undermined trust in politics and that they had seen it with their own eyes. On the contrary, Francis Ingham, CEO of the PRCA, and Lance Price one of the former 'spin-doctors' on Downing street, claimed that it was not PR practitioners the ones to blame but journalists and even politicians, as Ingham pointed out, the ones responsible for the lack of trust in politics.

After the debate the motion was put to the vote and finally it was agreed that Public Relations had not undermined the trust in politics in the UK with 78 votes.There were 61 people who voted for the motion. Do you agree with the result?

For further information on spin and Alastair Campbell refer to:
- Richards, P., (2005). Be your own spin doctor: a practical guide to using the media. London: Politico's
- Oborne, P. and Walters, S., (2004). Alastair Campbell. London: Aurum Press

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