Monday, May 14, 2007

The vicious cycle

Nicholas Jones has long been a critic of the extent to which political communication has become coloured by spin. His work on the birth of spin culture through to an expose of the control freaks within No. 10 Downing Street is underlined today in an article which characterises the Blair years as "a decade of squalid and politically corrupt spin" which has created "a generation of political journalists who have acquired the freedom to embellish quotations and use them to help manufacture their own exclusive story lines". Hence, Jones explains, the Campbellisation of the flow of information from state to public has placed the SpAds (Special Advisers [or signals passed at danger in railway speak]) in a position of absolute power as traders of exclusive information.

The contrast sharply with the intended role of the Special Advisors, Professor Karen Yeung explains that they were created to be an adjunct between the government, including the civil service, and the party in power. Instead of politicising the civil servants, something Thatcher has often been accused of, people such as Jo Moore should be responsible for presenting party political information while the civil service stick to impartial information provision. What Blair has achieved, and perhaps it should be Blair-isation rather than Campbellisation, is to place the Special Advisors as the key informers of public. media and civil service it would seem. They dominate all information flowing within and between departments and from departments out to the broader community.

Jones looks to the unfettered, unregulated world that is the Internet to solve the problem as it offers "an ideal opportunity to match the pioneering work of Clem Attlee in promoting... the people's conscious and active participation in public affairs"; blogging and commenting basically. But to facilitate this, Jones hints, government must present information also via the blogosphere. Each department could, if the impetus was there, release the day's achievements in a simple and accessible format. Not the 5,000 page pdf file with clauses and appendices, also not the carefully worded, possibly sexed-up, policy statement. But a list of we did this, this is why, this is how it will impact on the lives of citizens. The problem is that this will never happen. We all spin, but parties feel they have to as if they do not then the door is open to opponents in Westminster, in the media and beyond. Hence there is a vicious cycle at work: parties spin, media critiques, public disengages with a shrug - there is a better way but it seems highly doubtful that anyone would have the guts to be just plain honest independent of how much they seek to do what the electorate wants or how much voters call for the end of spin in political communication.

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