Iain Murray: Fantastic news – something terrible has just happened

It should be no surprise that the attacks on the US were used by a spin doctor as cover to release bad news, but don’t bees sting and skunks smell? asks Iain Murray

We can only guess what thoughts ran through the fear-stricken minds of the poor souls trapped in the smoke and searing heat of the twin towers in the minutes after the terrorists struck. Thanks to a leaked e-mail, however, we know exactly the thought that passed through the mind of Jo Moore as she sat in her Whitehall office watching the horror unfold on TV.

“Aha,” she thought, as people jumped to their deaths rather than await the certain, unspeakable destruction about to engulf them. “Carpe diem, let us seize the moment.”

And so her fingers sped across her keyboard. “Subject: Media handling. It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillor’s expenses? Jo.”

There has been widespread amazement at the smallness of her mind, the depth of her cynicism, the paucity of her imagination.

Scientists tell us that when the world comes to an end, it will be when the sun overheats as a prelude to exploding. As the temperature rises, the mountains will melt, the oceans will boil. And when they do, will there be a Jo Moore, mopping her brow and tapping out an urgent message to grab this opportunity to issue a discreet press release about bus passes?

Ms Moore, aged 38, mother of two, is described as a special adviser to Transport Secretary Stephen Byers – a man who admittedly could do with a great deal of advice, not least to seek alternative employment. In Ms Moore’s case, special adviser is the official euphemism for spin-doctor, which is itself a euphemism for media manipulator.

There is no excuse for the surprise occasioned by her e-mail. News management is what spin doctors do. Bees sting, dogs bite, skunks smell, octopuses squirt ink. Spin doctors do all these things – sometimes simultaneously.

Ever since the art of public relations emerged in the US between the wars, people have sought to use newspapers, and later the broadcast media, to serve their own interests. At first this development was – quite properly – viewed by the press with great suspicion. PR was a dirty word in an industry whose definition of news was something that someone, somewhere did not want to see printed. But once out of the bag, PR was here to stay; and by the Seventies and Eighties it had attained acceptability, if not respectability.

Persuaded that editorial matter was far more effective and credible than paid-for advertising, companies allocated large budgets to PR. Public relations was – and still is – the fashionable thing for smart, semi-educated young women to do. The press, once so wary, became so confused that it blamed the woes of the House of Windsor on inadequate PR and urged the monarchy to appoint better spinners.

Somewhere in the shadows, all this was watched and noted with interest by the serpentine Peter Mandelson, the man who would later emerge as the architect of New Labour’s transformation into an electable force. Under his guiding hand, media manipulation became enmeshed in UK politics as never before. And in 1997, the goal of office achieved, Labour set about permanently weaving spin into the apparatus of government. The prime minister’s personal spinner, the brooding and bullying Alastair Campbell, became the second most powerful man in government, and astonishingly, was a highly paid civil servant. Impartiality, once the bedrock on which Whitehall was founded, had become an irksome irrelevance.

And so the dark arts of placing stories, timing their release, fudging their wording, discrediting troublesome journalists, briefing against colleagues, fixing photo opportunities, and all the other tawdry tricks of the spin doctor’s trade became a far more important part of the process of government than addressing the House of Commons.

That is the way things are, and therefore, when a single-minded apparatchik with the breadth of vision of a glaucomatous bat, sends an e-mail seeking to exploit disaster for party gain, we really ought not to be surprised.

Nor should we be moved by the indignant outrage of a press that long ago succumbed to the fruits of PR. Day after day, the newspapers roll over like biddable puppies to have their tummies tickled by the same familiar hands. Every day, their pages bring “news” of Posh Spice, Geri Halliwell, Joan Collins, Kylie Minogue and Paul McCartney – all eager for publicity, and all duly obliged.

Of course, the media plays several parts. It exists to inform, entertain and amuse, and the grizzly, never-ending cavalcade of celebrities has come to dominate the entertainment and amusement departments, though heaven knows, we could do with a change of cast. But while it is perhaps harmless – though undignified – to sit up and beg when the PR hand extends a tidbit about Paul McCartney’s musing on the possibility of rediscovered parenthood, to swallow the offerings of government is craven.

It is the duty of the media to view government and its workings with the utmost suspicion and to tell the public what the government does not want it to hear. Nothing more alarms those set in power over us than a free press, which is why Jo Moore and her kind are enemies of the people. Or, to use the newspeak construction – the people’s enemies.


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