The Conservative party is to recruit extra spin doctors to counter the effectiveness of Labour’s propaganda machine.
Party chairman Brian Mawhinney – himself a doctor, though not of spin – has instructed party officials to find three experienced journalists to help boost the Tories’ image in the run-up to the General election. In issuing such an instruction he is, I fear, hopelessly out of date. Spin doctors are not to be found in journalism.
There was a time, I suppose about 20 years ago, when journalists whose ambition had been frustrated, but whose appetite for money remained healthy, defected to the rapidly emerging world of organised public relations.
Today, however, PR generates its own talent. Graduates spill out from the universities, desperate to get into the communications business, and for them PR is every bit as attractive as journalism. Spin doctoring is, therefore, a profession in its own right. And Dr Mawhinney should know that.
As with ordinary doctoring, spin has its GPs, drones who toil at the humdrum end of the business, taking corporate temperatures, examining warts, and applying sticking plasters to confused egos. At the other end of the scale there are the consultant spin doctors. They are expensively dressed, chauffeur-driven, and deal on equal terms with captains of industry and heads of state. Their expertise is in the diagnosis and treatment of serious conditions such as a collapsed reputation. Since a 30 per cent lag behind the competition in the opinion polls is undoubtedly a life threatening condition, the Conservatives need specialist treatment. There is therefore, no point whatever in turning to journalists whose knowledge of spin is no better than a bit of half-remembered first aid.
Perhaps Dr Mawhinney has been misled by the fact that journalists profess to be expert judges of spin doctoring when they see it in others. There could be no better example of this than Julia Carling who has been widely acclaimed as a something of a PR genius. When she rebuked the Princess of Wales, who had been seeing her husband Will more times than seemed seemly, with the carefully chosen words, “You hope she won’t do these things again but she obviously does”, the Press wildly applauded the comment as something worthy of Talleyrand and Metternich working in tandem.
A few weeks later, when the Carlings split up, allegedly because of Diana, Julia greeted the door-stepping journalists with the words, “I’ve got a hangover. I’ve got nothing to say.” Which again occasioned open-mouthed wonder at the sheer brilliance of the woman’s intuitive public relations skills. Had Hannibal, his veterans cut to pieces and Carthage at the mercy of Rome, concluded the end of the Second Punic War with the words chosen by Julia Carling, history might have judged him the victor.
When the throbbing in her head abated and the acid indigestion subsided, she duly emerged to read a press statement on the state of her marriage. The Daily Mail’s reporter was spellbound. “She did it so cleverly, so coolly, that you had to keep reminding yourself that she was not putting it out on behalf of one of her clients, but for herself, and it wasn’t a product she was talking about, but her marriage.”
What politician would not give his eye teeth to have those words said of him? “He did it so cleverly, so coolly, that you had to keep reminding yourself that it was not the ascent into sunlit uplands of everlasting happiness he was talking about, but the public sector borrowing requirement.”
Three weeks later, when Julia Carling was caught in the glare of photographers’ flashguns as she kissed her friend Daniel Galvin outside a London restaurant, she told photographers: “I have not started a relationship with Daniel. He does my hair. There is nothing at all between us. He is a good mate.”
Once again, the Mail was breathless with admiration. “Julia Carling’s PR timing has been impeccable.”
You can see what the paper means. Had John Major returned form Maastricht and said: “I have not started a relationship with Helmut. He does my hair. There is nothing at all between us. He is a not inconsiderable mate, oh yes”, he might have been spared much of the anguish that subsequently afflicted both him and his party.
Spin doctoring is not quite the same as selling goods of dubious quality: then again, it is not all that different either, so Dr Mawhinney might usefully observe the tactics employed by Paula Yates. The estranged wife of Bob Geldof has been paid a six-figure sum for writing her autobiography, a task which she completed in six days. She then set about “ruthlessly marketing herself”.
Marketing, according to the Chartered Institute, is “the management process of identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably”. Paula Yates knows her customers – her book was serialised in The Sun – so among her revelations is that she scribbled the message “please make them perfect” across her breasts on the day the plastic surgeons were to enlarge them.
Paula Yates is, therefore, not so much a spin doctor as a spin nurse. But since she is the kind who wears short skirts and suspender belts, the Tories would be well advised to steer clear. This Government has had quite enough to do with that sort of thing already.