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Spads and spin: how governments are making the news

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The description of government communications as ‘spin’ has been part of the political lexicon since the mid 1990s. But what is the reality behind its image? A new research project from LSE questions the idea of ‘political spin’, examining the changes in government communications to ask whether the UK civil service is being politicised and what this might mean for democracy and the media.

The Labour party’s landslide victory in 1997 following 18 years out of power heralded a new era for British politics in a number of ways. A new communications operation, led by Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell, brought in a centralised, highly disciplined and robust style of information management to government.

Across the civil service, the use of Special Advisers (often abbreviated to "Spads") increased dramatically. Spads are temporary appointments made by government ministers to give political, presentational and policy advice, to supplement the support available to them from the permanent but apolitical civil service.

These two developments have coincided with a perception that the Blair years marked the start of the decline in trust in government, symbolised by the ‘spin’ label which is often associated with manipulation and the concealment of the truth.

Before she became a PhD candidate in the Department of Media and Communications, Ruth Garland developed an interest in this area during her own career as a local government press officer. She said: “I was attracted to researching the concept of ‘spin’. Is it manipulation, a label or name calling? To me that seemed a very crude way of describing what is a major part of government operations. And where did ‘spin’ come from?"

Ruth added: "This led me to investigate what it felt like from the point of view of government press officers, people whose voices are rarely heard. Is it really true that civil service communications is being politicised, and what might this mean for their tradition of impartiality? Most importantly, how could ‘spin’ relate to changes in public trust?”

Ruth found that Spads have taken on an increasingly prominent role in government communications in the modern era. Although Spads have existed since the Harold Wilson government in 1960s, she traces their rise to the early years of the 1980’s Conservative government. She said: “I found that government has relied on the help of political advisors since the Thatcher era, when big and sometimes controversial projects had to overcome internal and external resistance. Their influence then grew and increased during the New Labour era.

Ruth added: "For ministers keen to ‘drive through’ radical change, and to be seen to be doing so, the kinds of checks and balances typical of  civil service impartiality started to be seen as an obstacle to the implementation of government policy. Ministers wanted Spads to help overcome resistance and communicate the programmes aggressively through the media. Where did this leave the more cautious government press officer?”

Ruth has interviewed 25 people in total for her research: 16 former civil servants, 6 former journalists and 3 Spads. Many of the journalists interviewed for the research hold the view that Spads fundamentally changed the nature of political reporting. Ruth said: “Journalists started to work with Spads outside of normal working hours and have personal relationships with them which they weren’t able to have with the civil service. Spads became the source of much of our political news. In a way, this approach has helped to facilitate the 24 hour media and political culture which exists today.”

Rather than this development being a consequence of the increase of TV news channels and the proliferation of internet news sites in the past two decades, Ruth argues that the political class are complicit in our media culture. She said: “Some of my interviewees told me that politicians can resist, and some do. Many of the people I interviewed, including the journalists,  described the situation as ‘feeding the beast’, the more you give, the bigger it gets, so they are very aware of what they are doing. The media culture that has developed in the past twenty years could not exist on its own.”

Despite the role of government, Ruth describes this situation as one of the consequences of mediatisation. According to this theory, the media shapes and frames the processes and discourse of the society in which the communication takes place. Ruth said: “In the case of political communication, it’s probably a feedback loop between the government and the media, each one helping to sustain the other.”

Ruth is due to submit her thesis in autumn 2016 and hopes her research will help our understanding of the relationship between ‘spin’ and trust in government.

“Persuasion in politics is not always a bad thing. But the decisions of our government affect all of our lives in ways which are not immediately apparent— this research will help our understanding of how political communication has affected our media culture and our perceptions of government.”

Posted March 2016

Additional notes

Ruth photoRuth Garland is a PhD researcher in Media & Communications at the London School of Economics, having returned to study after 25 years working in media relations in publishing, broadcasting, public health and local government.

The title of her thesis is Between media and political power: can government press officers ‘hold the line’ in the age of political spin? The case of the UK after 1997.

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