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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 08:45 GMT 09:45 UK
How Blair put the media in a spin
By Andrew Marr
Presenter and former BBC political editor

Alastair Campbell with Tony Blair
Mr Campbell established himself as Mr Blair's right-hand man

When Tony Blair arrived as Labour leader, he seemed to break all earlier conventions in how he spoke and handled himself with the media.

As a long-serving prime minister goes, with all the backwash of disappointment, anger and weariness, it's easy to forget how fresh he once seemed.

But right from the start, a big part of that was what we now call "spin".

Yes, it comes from bowling - baseball as much as cricket - but back in the mid-1990s, its use in politics was rather technical, a term used by Westminster wonks and trying-hard-to-impress columnists.

"Spin doctor" was being used in the '80s in the US but it is part of the legacy of Blairism that "spin" became a term understood by most of the British people, and not in the older senses of going for a ride in a car, or washing clothes.

'Hostile' journalism

New Labour was the most media-obsessed government Britain had had in modern times.

With Alastair Campbell, a former tabloid newspaper journalist, and Peter Mandelson, a former television current affairs producer, working so closely with Blair, this was hardly surprising.

Dr David Kelly
Dr David Kelly committed suicide in 2003 after facing intense scrutiny
From the first, there seemed to be a tendency to browbeat and cajole journalists, to fight for every comma and exclamation mark in every headline, contest every quote, challenge every piece of analysis.

Some of this had started in the Kinnock years, and it was originally defensive.

Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Campbell had watched Neil Kinnock being torn to shreds by hostile journalism, abetted by a pretty ruthless Number 10 operation in the Thatcher era, and had resolved "this will never happen to us again".

And that was understandable. Journalists should not complain too much: most of those at the other end of the telephone were well-paid people who could stand up to spin doctors if they chose to.

Tobacco scandal

More worrying was the tendency to tell different newspapers and proprietors what they wanted to hear.

With Rupert Murdoch, Blair seemed robustly anti-euro. With pro-EU papers, he seemed strongly europhile.

Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone's 1m donation to Labour in 1997 led to a major row
Sometimes he sounded a keen civil libertarian. At other times, he was Mr Law and Order. People began to ask: where's the real Blair?

That was background stuff, until he reached government, when almost immediately the Bernie Ecclestone Formula One tobacco sponsorship row put him on the back foot, and he found himself desperately pleading to be trusted.

A string of minor scandals followed, and the Number 10 press operation began to win a reputation for deviousness as well as aggression.

The "non-denial denial" and finicky analysis of the grammar of what was said became essential tools in explaining what was going on. Sometimes, outright lies were told.

As relations deteriorated between the media and Number 10, spin began to look less like a brilliantly clever and successful way of governing a liberal democracy, and more like a terrible mistake.

Things got so bad that even when Blair was saying something obvious, he was disbelieved.

"Well, the spin is that...," began a thousand reports. Media cynicism curdled further. The spinning became angrier still.

Hutton inquiry

All this culminated in the political-media crisis over who had really thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and whether journalists and the country had been misled.

Most such Westminster "battles" are virtual and don't draw real blood.

How Tony Blair has aged during 10 years in office

But the death of David Kelly and the meltdown in the BBC after the Hutton inquiry signalled a different level of crisis.

Blair was vindicated by Lord Hutton, at least on the main charge, but understood that spin was doing him far more harm than good.

Alastair Campbell left, and a new, calmer and more traditional regime was installed under his successor, David Hill.

This has not meant that controversy over spin disappeared.

It will be as associated with the Blair years as "sleaze" was - thanks in part to Team Blair - with the Major years.

It was not ever the most important thing. It was never the whole truth.

But it became a kind of grubby, smeared, opaque and distorting glass between Blair at his best and the rest of the country - just the opposite of the effective communication it had promised to be a dozen years before.




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