Are the media to blame for spin?

Everywhere we look, there is spin. Not the Swanny sort. Nor the spider type. It’s the Alastair Campbell variety. 

When Thatcher’s spokesman was Bernard Ingham, no one called him a spin doctor, but everyone knew his job was to present things in a way that showed the PM and Government in the best possible light. In the Blair years Campbell was called a spin doctor, and the art had developed to the point that he was planting ideas, policies and scuttlebut, as well as speaking on behalf of his boss. 

Now we have politicians, business leaders, football and rugby managers (to name a few) spinning cheerfully for themselves, while every organisation even remotely in the public eye hires publicists and spokespeople to do it for them. Very few public figures make straightforward statements or answer direct questions. 

What are we to make of it? Does it matter? Is it a sign of lower standards in public life? Does it suggest that there is much less respect for the truth? 

Or is there another explanation? Is it the media’s fault for being much more aggressive and intrusive than in former times? 

Yes, I believe it is. Interviews and discussions on radio and television are more gladiatorial. The level of politeness that you would expect in a private conversation or a business meeting is absent. Listening and courtesy have disappeared, to be replaced by hectoring and rudeness. Where once there was wit, there is now even more strident assertiveness. 

Faced by this kind of journalism, is it surprising that interviewees have to be coached in evasiveness? Statements and press releases are often carefully worded to avoid vouchsafing the real story or the real truth. 

Is this another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences? 

  • Journalists determined to pursue their goal of investigating issues in the public interest
  • Public figures (could be the Prime Minister, could be the CEO of BP, could be the England Rugby Manager) become more skilled at evading and blocking
  • Journalists decide to be more aggressive
  • Some success in the short term as interviewees fold under pressure
  • PR and communications advisors deliver more effective media training in spinning stories
  • Interviews and discussions become increasingly acrimonious, and the public figures give less and less away
  • Stalemate…
  • …but worse – what happens in public view on TV and radio starts to influence how everyone else behaves, especially young and impressionable people. 

In his entertaining autobiography “Parky”, Michael Parkinson puts his success on TV down to being able to get more out of celebrities with a gentle and courteous approach. Maybe more civilised behaviour on both sides of the average interview would pay off: less rudeness, less spin.

It has to be worth a try.