THE BLOG
15/11/2013 09:31 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Is the Age of the Spin-Doctor Over?

Shadowy spin doctors twisting the will of power and structuring the media debate are a popular character with journalists. Of course the reality of news-management and political spin is decidedly different, but this has not prohibited journalistic concentration.

The result has been a newly cynical electorate dubious of dishonest politicians and 'sexed up' policies. In this brave new world of social, online debate can authentic leaders still be generated by spin?

The changing landscape of spin politics

Political spin - political propaganda achieved through news management to deliver a preferred image - developed in the late 1970's as an understandable reaction to a relentlessly intrusive media that focused increasingly on personality issues and assassinated politicians who did not fit into moral criterion.

Dramatic changes in the technology and market landscape of political reporting forced parties to adapt. The model that eventually emerged was a dual approach to media campaigns.

On the one hand, of this twofold approach, strategists sought to create and market political 'brands' to the public- this is a long-term project. Whilst on the other hand they aimed to manage the 24/7 news environment through a 'permanent campaign' - putting a positive spin on negative reporting, and retaining voter support all year round, not just during elections.

Thus the objectification of politics (the gradual predominance of objective (external) culture over subjective (internal) culture) provided a new role for communications experts or spin doctor, who came to dominate government legislation output throughout the 90's and early 00's.

The rule of thumb for spin-doctors has always been to remain invisible. SPADS (special advisors to the cabinet), for example, have been described by The Telegraph as"the most shadowy figures in government".

However New Labour turned the rule on its head, encouraging high profile communications professionals to publicize themselves in a bid to realign the party as one of change and modernity. This of course backfired with the spotlight afforded to Alastair Campbell's September dossier, illuminated for the first time the important role spin has in creating and helping execute policy.

The UK media has been attracted to the idea of political spin since its inception. The fascination with spin is born out of two factors: Firstly journalists are drawn to the shadowy and supposed conspiracy surrounding political spin. Secondly spin is covered out of disapproval and scepticism and a profound cynicism within the media of the Westminster establishment.

As the public has woken up to the realities of Westminster spin, news management and 'the permanent campaign' so too has cynicism with the political establishment risen and inhibited the work of spin-doctors themselves. According to Timothy Bewes:

"The moment when we become aware of the existence of spin is the moment of its disappearance. Effective spin requires a general unawareness of its existence. The contemporary visibility of spin and spin doctors, we must assume, inhibits their effective operation."

Now, not all news-management endeavours to twist the truth. Peter Mandelson- the infamous Labour "prince of darkness" - commonly claimed that far from bending the truth news management and political spin aimed to "create the truth". Likewise spin- doctors do not have overall control of a political situation, the relationship between journalist and spin-doctor is symbiotic and complex.

Nonetheless, media meta-coverage has intoxicated spin, which is now a negative asset for UK political brands. Spin has eroded public trust in the political elite and has led to a popular critique that claims all political decisions to be marketing strategic and all politicians to be duplicitous.

Spin-doctors have not only poisoned individual party brands but politics in its most macro sense. It is as Norris (2000) warned that "It may become harder to trust political messages and political messengers if everything in politics is designed for popular appeal".

Authenticity: A new honesty generated by a quieter spin

Refuting the Blair years and the age of political spin the electorate is now looking increasingly for moral integrity and 'authenticity' in their politicians. To adapt Oscar Wilde, authenticity is to be true to one's self, and to act as one's own moral agent. In politics this translates as being free from spin and being transparent to voters.

Past research has shown authenticity to be a crucial determinant of political campaign outcomes, whilst recent research demonstrates that authenticity plays an important role in shaping voters' perception of electoral candidates.

The public clamour for authenticity and production-line politicians has not removed the need for spin-doctors. There are two clear indicators that show that in the 'authentic' and counter-spin age spin-doctors still yield considerable power.

Firstly we must look at rhetoric: Politicians rarely say that they have to get back to real policies, but instead that they have to 'convince' the electorate that they are more interested in substance than image - the emphasis is thus on making political brands 'appear' authentic rather than actually making them authentic.

Secondly we must look at the appointments of senior spin-doctors within government: At the last full reporting the government had 68 special advisors in its employment, 18 of whom worked in 10 Downing Street, less than during the Blair years but nonetheless extremely high.

The use of spin to create authentic political brands is not a UK phenomenon. US presidential candidates are now reported to use commercial marketing tactics to position themselves as being the candidate with the most integrity.

Perhaps the best example of 'authentic engineering' by spin-doctors is the successes of London mayor Boris Johnson. Although some, including Conrad Black claim Boris is "a sly fox disguised as a teddy bear", and despite the journalistic fervour to illustrate him as an "inauthentic" individual, the London electorate perceive Boris to be a politician of integrity, who speaks his mind uninhibited.

However Boris's personal authenticity is not entirely unadulterated. Instead his personality and eccentricities are part of a calculated permanent campaign orchestrated by a professional spin team upon whom he spends £1.57million a year.

The difference with previous administrations is that spin doctors are today increasingly veiled from the public spotlight. The rule of thumb of invisibility is being enforced with increasing regiment, so as to make politicians appear authentic in their decisions. The years of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson talking publicly to the press are over. Exposure - as with the case of Andy Coulson - means expulsion.

A necessary evil in a #world

Of-course the idea that an adapted permanent campaign can help convince the public that politicians are spin free is by definition oxymoronic. The refocus of attention through news management away from image to substance may actually cause to inflate the concept of spin itself by adding a mediated layer between the electorate and politicians.

However in a 24/7 media environment of meta-coverage and increasing voter engagement it is unlikely that spin will ever be removed from the political landscape. Feared, loathed, venerated or emulated spin doctors are amongst us, and they remain a necessary evil today. Despite the risk of running an inauthentic brand, spin is too valuable a commodity to pass up. It vitally allows politicians to control the 'fourth estate' and steer the debate in their favor.

We no longer live in a purely mediated political world; instead the growth of social media and networked western democracies has meant politicians must also manage the online debate (a far more fluid and irrepressible discussion) simultaneously to traditional news-management.

Some have argued that the online debate requires more tenacious management. This is because the balance given to both sides of an argument within traditional media reporting is removed online. A recent blog post eloquently surmised this:

"No rule (of balance) applies on Twitter. Users say pretty much what they want. They say it in less than 140 characters which makes it punchy and, in some cases, very funny. They form loose alliances (political gangs in other words) and may produce a 'Twitter Storm'. They go after their quarry like a pride of lions." (Politicsworldwide.com.2012)

We are yet to see how effectively and through what mechanisms spin-doctors will be able to manage the social debate. Social media may prove uncontrollable, sinking the influence of spin, or it may strengthen the case for spin-doctors, elevating them to higher echelons.

Conclusion

The age of the spin doctor is not over. But the role and public presence of the spin-doctor is irreparably different to previous generations.

As the new networked age of cynical and social voters has dawned, political parties have been forced to wake up with a powerful headache: How can we control the debate? How can we appear authentic? Thus far the answer to these questions has been to withdraw spin from the public spotlight and focus attention on the digital environment. How long will this attitude persist, it is hard to tell. What is for certain is that politicians are not keen to forsake their permanent campaigns quite yet.