The intensity of the coverage of the press issues is matched only by the ferocity of the language used by politicians and others to condemn largely unnamed malefactors.
I agree that it is in bad taste and hurtful to listen to the phone messages of victims of tragedy, as well as being against the law. Let the law be enforced, by bringing charges where there is evidence. I also agree that it is a crime to bribe a police officer. Again, let charges be brought where there is evidence. These incidents may not be confined to the employees of just one newspaper. All newspapers try to listen in to the more private thoughts of people with power or fame, though we hope they usually do so legally.
What is extraordinary is the handwringing and confessions coming from senior politicians of the mistakes that have been made cosying up to newspaper figures. Some of us have said for years that there was too much spin. We added that politics based on too much spin was neither healthy nor necessarily popular. As we now see from these cases, the Spin Doctor can become too prominent and can become the problem. Mr Cameron now has to spend time explaining his relationship with Mr Coulson. There is a lot to be said for politicians who tell Parliament by speaking in the Chamber, and expand to the media in a subsequent press conference what they want to say.
The problem with Spin doctors is they “interpret” what the politicians has said. They may do so accurately, often in a way which hurts a colleague of the politician. We are told a given sentence was an attack on x or a signal about y. They may sometimes do so inaccurately, carried away by their own position to ascribe to the politician thoughts and feelings he or she does not share. Either way it leads people to distrust politicians more, as the public learns they always speak in code, and it damages relationships within a government or party by stressing or creating divisions.
All previous governments had spent some time on thinking what to say and how to say it to the press to present themselves. New Labour took the arts of spinning and elevated them into a kind of political religion. It was Mr Blair who flew half way round the world to pay homage to Mr Murdoch. It was Mr Blair who appointed a Spin Doctor as the most senior official at Number 10. Mrs Thatcher’s Press Spokesman was not the most senior official, and Mr Ingham did not intervene in policy and Cabinet matters in the way Mr Campbell did. It was the New Labour government that changed many of the Press officials in Whitehall. That same government appeared to tell its Ministers to concentrate more on trying to manage the press than on managing their departments. Modern politicians are all to a considerable extent under the cloud of modern spinning that was created after 1997.
What should now be clear is that too much spinning can damage the politicians who think it helps them. I read that politicians can now breathe a sigh of relief that the power of the Murdoch press is broken, and they can now behave more as they would like. How extraordinary that they felt like that. I have never knowingly changed my views of a problem because a newspaper has taken a different view to the one I express. I have often tried to persuade newspapers and their journalists of my view, or at least get them to cover it. I have relied for my views on the facts I read, my analysis of what might work, and my judgement of the public mood, including my own constituents. My first thought is what is in the national interest, what might achieve the aims we have? My second thought is how do you express this judgement, given the range of views that the public holds. Quite often I have to advance an argument or an explanation of the facts first before proposing a remedy, because the facts are often ignored or misunderstood in the media. Many in the media rely on the two main sources of spin, Number 10 and the Leader of the Opposition’s office. These two bodies may not know the shape and size of a problem, or may not wish us to know it.
My advice to those colleagues who have been cowed by the media is twofold. Just because the News of the World has gone and the Murdoch papers are having to deal with a hostile press and investigations does not mean politicians suddenly have a new licence to behave badly free of press censure. Perhaps “modern politicians” can now understand what some of us have long said. The important thing is to govern well, and then the spinning almost takes care of itself. The best advocates of the government’s course of action should be the Ministers themselves who approved it. If they can explain and defend it to the Commons they should be able to do so anywhere. The argument used to justify all this spin is that we now live in a 7 by 24 news round. Yes, but that does not mean Ministers have to entertain the media 7 by 24. If they refused to perform at all hours of the day and night, the media would attend Parliament and hear what they had to say.