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Tuesday, January 5, 1999 Published at 18:08 GMT

UK Politics

Time to stop the spin?

Mandelson and Whelan were two of Labour's arch "spinners"

Try as they might, Labour traditionalists will fight to suppress a wry smile at the passing of Charlie Whelan.

Coming less than a fortnight after Peter Mandelson's ignominious fall from office, the art of spin doctoring seems to be in crisis.

Two years ago Mandelson and Whelan were riding high, key members of the Labour publicity team which struck time and again to damage John Major's faltering government.

Credit was heaped upon them for helping to deliver Tony Blair's landslide election victory in May 1997.

A dying art?

But when the momentum carried through into government, some of Labour's old hands became riled by their authority. The charge of "style over content" has repeatedly been levelled at Mr Blair's approach to leadership, from inside as well as outside the party.

But it would be nave to suggest that recent sensational events have laid spin doctoring to rest forever.

That's according to Sheila Gunn, a former personal press secretary to John Major.

Fixed psyche

"The political culture is there and you can't change that," says Ms Gunn, who believes spin doctoring is now ingrained in the government's psyche, for better or worse.

[ image: Labour shook up Whitehall's old guard of press officers]
Labour shook up Whitehall's old guard of press officers
She blames Labour's "cull" of veteran Whitehall press officers in the months after Blair came to power.

"They got rid of a whole tier of directors of information in the individual ministries and replaced them with party people."

The result: civil servant press officers were replaced by politically-motivated spin doctors.

The problem then, she says, is that individual spokesmen work to "promote their ministers rather than the government".

It's then just a small step to the sort of political back-biting that claimed the scalps of Mandelson and Whelan, says Ms Gunn.

So, while Labour may rue the day it created spin doctors, they are now a part of the party's body politic.

Ms Gunn expects to see a slackening-off of spin for a "few days or weeks" before it's back to business as usual.

[ image: Joy Johnson sees a shift of spin]
Joy Johnson sees a shift of spin
Joy Johnson, Labour's campaigns director in 1995-96, points out that the demise of Mandelson and Whelan will simply result in a shift of spin, principally into the hands of Number 10 press secretary, Alastair Campbell.

"Alastair Campbell will be fantastically strengthened by it. He's definitely got what he wanted which is control of the media machine," says Ms Johnson.

She senses he will be humble enough not to abuse this new-found power.

"I think he will be thoughtful about it. I don't actually think he will let it go to his head."

She also thinks the current climate will promote greater democracy in Cabinet meetings, through more round-table discussions.

[ image: Alastair Campbell: Ball's in his court]
Alastair Campbell: Ball's in his court
But ultimately the transfer of power is a bad thing for the party, she says.

"I, personally, think that you do not want too much control in the centre. Obviously you need some co-ordination or you end up in a shambles like the Major administration."

The media must also take responsibility if they want to defeat the propaganda machine, says Ms Johnson, who quit her party job complaining "you can't win with spin".

"Journalists must listen to other voices - back-benchers, special committee members, trade unionists, city people, pressure groups.

"We also need more open government and a freedom of information act so we know what is going on in government."

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