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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 October, 2004, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
Revealing the first 'spinne doctors'
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift: The Alastair Campbell of his day?
Spin doctors such as Alastair Campbell and Jo Moore are often blamed for undermining trust in modern politics.

But according to a new book, the art of media manipulation is as old as party politics itself.

Politicians in Queen Anne's England, such as the Tory Robert Harley, were the first to realise the importance of political communication, according to Dr Mark Knights, of the University of East Anglia.

Fierce rivalry between Whigs and Tories, coupled with the birth of a free press and frequent elections - often every two and a half years - created a fertile breeding ground for spin, Dr Knights argues.

'Media spin'

Politicians recruited the leading writers and journalists of the day to put the best possible gloss on controversial policies, such as the war against Louis XIV, in pamphlets and sermons, heralding the birth of the "spin doctor".

The term was originally coined to describe someone who is good at pool
It was first used in politics during the 1984 US presidential elections
It became widely used in the UK in the early 1990s
Writing in History Today, Dr Knights says: "The public, both as electors and as readers of the voluminous quantities of print produced by writers such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, was expected to judge between competing partisan versions of the real state of affairs.

"In doing so the public confronted the same issues of deception and media spin that we see as characteristic of modern politics.

"While it may be that the modern media and political structures exacerbate anxieties about political truth, the real problem may lie far deeper, with the inherent nature of public, partisan politics."

'Political corruption'

But former BBC Political Correspondent Nick Jones, who has written two books on political spin, said there were crucial differences between then and now.

"Where we have moved on from the 17th Century is that the British civil service, the state machine, became protected from political corruption.

"The civil servants weren't required to deceive the public and, of course, the charge now against the Labour government and Tony Blair is, perhaps, that's what has happened," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The government had taken steps to reverse the trend towards the politicization of the civil service following the publication of the Phillis review, Mr Jones added.

Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture, by Mark Knights, is published by Oxford University Press.

Campbell blames media for 'spin'
11 May 04 |  UK Election 2005

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