Peter Hain's speech on spin to the IPPR

Peter Hain, 29/07/2003

Category: Spin

Ten days ago a man took his life amidst fever pitch intensity in the "Westminster bubble" - that politically incestuous world occupied by politicians (both government and opposition) together with the media.

Well before this tragedy, I had become increasingly frustrated about the truly appalling quality of what passes for "political debate" in Britain today. And discussing this with some editors and lobby journalists, I found a common acknowledgement that we do have a genuine crisis. This past week, journalists as diverse as Andrew Marr and Libby Purves, Andrew Grice and David Aaronovitch, Michael White and Nick Jones, have all self-critically discussed the problem of media, and not just government, spin.

"Government attacks media" or "media attacks government". Take your pick of these by now almost daily headlines, and you may shrug "so what's new?" By their seventh year most governments tend to be in the fractious position Labour now is.

But something else more fundamental has been developing. Politicians, news broadcasters and journalists now form a "political class" which is in a frenzied world of its own, completely divorced from the people, and which is turning off viewers, listeners and readers from politics by the million.

The media debate centres on soundbites interpreted by spin, instead of arguments underpinned by facts. This is breeding a climate of cynicism which is corrosive of democracy, and which is contributing to voter disengagement and low turnout.

The hunt for the new angle on a story leads to a self-indulgent obsession with process, not substance, and with personalities not policies. The Today programme has rightly been fingered a culprit here, but they are far from being alone.

This is not about wanting an easy ride in interviews, nor is it about silencing John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman - both excellent interviewers against whom I've never had any cause for complaint. Politicians should be big enough to handle tough questioning. No - it's about something very different. It's about the need for us all to break free of the Westminster bubble.

In the Westminster bubble, if we believe the media, everything is done for a manipulative purpose. Cock-ups never happen - two major announcements on the same day must be some cunning sneak out by a spin-doctor as Labour has become a victim of our own reputation for media management.

Journalists kept hanging around for six hours for the last re-shuffle endlessly debated possible outcomes and eventually expressed their frustration at a delay inconvenient to them with hyped up reports of a "shambles" because they were taken by surprise as their confident predictions were shown to be wrong.

True, No 10 could have been much clearer about the Wales/Scotland dimensions which would have avoided genuine confusion. But spatch-cocking a radical reform of the role of lord chancellor and the judiciary into a "shambles" story was nonsense. Media treatment said more about the vanity of the media than the substance of the reform.

From Tony Blair and Gordon Brown through Alastair Campbell, we've been self critical about our own tendency for "spin" in our early years. But then again if we hadn't shown an iron grip on our communications, we could so easily have degenerated into the shambles of the John Major years - with the media being the first to attack us for it.

The media cannot have it both ways - we cannot be both "control freaks" and then, when we ease up on that control, be accused of having "lost control". When ministers all sing from the same hymn sheet we are accused of being controlled by our pagers - and women MPs demeaningly labelled "Blair babes". Yet when we go "off script", the government is "adrift", the PM has "lost control". We're attacked as a government "without a grip", with our famed ability to communicate "ebbing away".

As a cabinet minister, I'm a believer in plain speaking and answering questions not ducking them. It's got me into the odd scrape. But then even the most cautious, on-message minister has been there too: it comes with the job these days.

A different adjective on the euro feeds a restless rush for a new cabinet split story and we're off again in our Westminster bubble pre-occupied with ourselves, not the public. Yet I find people would like to hear an intelligent discussion of the pros and cons of the euro. And the only time I have ever experienced this is on regional radio phone-ins. You might as well give up on the national media to discuss Europe properly

The way the debate in the Westminster bubble is conducted is insulting to a public that wants intelligent debate, not journalistic spin or government on-message boredom.

Politicians need to be straight with the public about the issues that concern them. But the media needs to be straight in the way they report them. The public, I believe want to be engaged in a sensible debate about current issues - but they are badly served by the Westminster bubble.

They don't like the way every attempt at open debate is turned into a split or the way that every ministerial word that is microscopically different becomes a gaffe or a split.

They want to see, hear and read the merits of interesting ideas by ministers or shadow ministers instead of all sorts of angles, spin and process minutiae - endlessly fascinating and exciting to the Westminster bubble but boring and self-obsessed to everyone else.

Commenting on my infamous tax brouhaha last month, some argued that the government over-reacted and themselves made the story a bigger deal. But talking to Tony and Gordon, we were all agreed. I closed myself down that day. It had got out of hand: if we hadn't done this the "story" would have been "Labour plans top rate rise": "Hain humiliated" was rather better than that!

The broadcasts that morning when I woke up bore no relation to what I knew was planned in the speech. And I don't mean the revised version - I mean the original, which raised a question but didn't propose new policy. Yet broadcasters confidently said that I was specifically proposing 50% tax here and 60% tax there. Actually I never did, nor would I. But don't let a story or a spin get in the way of the truth - please.

The Westminster bubble is obsessed with who's up and who's down. Grown up policy debate within the cabinet about difficult issues? No way! Everything is a personal rivalry.

I was first in the media spotlight during anti-apartheid campaigns 33 years ago. But I have never before experienced so much made up journalism - or, at best, journalism based on single anonymous sources - often from gossip over lunches, no doubt.

I am invariably amazed at what I read about myself - and if that goes for me, imagine what the prime minister feels ... Indeed, I know what he feels: that the Westminster bubble bears no resemblance to reality. As Nick Jones wrote last month: "In the 35 years since I began work at the House of Commons ... the most worrying change in political reporting has been the growing failure of journalists to provide sources for many of the news items which are broadcast or appear in print." And this from a former BBC political correspondent and one of the fiercest critics of the culture of political spin and soundbites.

Most politicians of all parties are decent people motivated by a desire to do good. We didn't get involved in politics because of a fascination with the process. We want to change society. Equally, most journalists went into their profession to report, or uncover, the truth.

And the truth is most voters - and readers, viewers and listeners - want to read or hear about how our policies are likely to affect their lives - not about the self-obsessed little world of the political class.

By all means give government a hard time when we deserve it. But both of us need to get a better balance between the reporting of politics in terms of the outcomes that affect our public and what goes on inside our own little bubble.

Government can do more to cut out the spin and cut down on the packaging. Equally, the Press can do more to report substance and content. We need a new deal.

There is another problem: with the opposition - or rather the lack of it. Politics abhors a vacuum. And sections of the media have rushed to fill it - and not just traditionally partial newspapers, but independent broadcasters.

We have seen the absolute extreme of this in the recent row between the BBC and the government. A story, based on one source and "sexed up" to make it more interesting - with the seniority of that source also spun to give the report more credibility - in the best traditions of the tabloids, rather than a public service broadcaster.

And, with the media pack in full cry, the very idea that David Kelly's name could have been kept secret is absurd. If it hadn't emerged, doubtless the media would have spun it into a cover up story, with endless speculation on the Today programme as to why.

There is a fine tradition of investigative journalism that must continue - including by broadcasters, and the BBC in particular, considering its public service remit. Many genuine scandals have been exposed, and suffering and abuse ended, because of excellent journalism. There is a fine tradition of critical and campaigning journalism - and that must continue also. But when it becomes journalistic spin, it must not be dressed up as straight-forward reporting - with lines blurred between fact and comment.

Politicians want to announce policies - and control the reporting of them. That's life, and of course the media want to avoid being manipulated. But more and more journalists - increasingly in broadcasting media, and not just in the press - want to be part of the story: influencing the direction of a story as much as reporting it. It's time for journalists who want to be politicians to stand for election. Instead of being spectators, the media have become key players in politics. Instead of following the agenda, the media are increasingly setting it. Instead of reporting, some journalists are increasingly spinning. Intense competition means even broadsheets hugely over-hype. As I have consistently experienced, sub-editors often write headlines and introductions which bear little resemblance to quoted words - which broadcasters then transmit without correction.

This is a chicken and egg situation. The media becomes a 24-hour rolling, non-stop machine, with producers and editors crying out for a new angle to "take the story on". Politicians respond with media grids, pagers and pre-briefings of announcements - anything to wrest back control of the frenzied news agenda. So, journalists resort to their own ways of setting the news agenda, running leaks of half-developed government policies. Or running unattributed comments from "sources", "senior MPs" and "friends". What is a "senior MP"? Who are all these "friends of mine" who know what I'm thinking, but have never asked me?

And the endless merry-go-round of market competition sucks in everybody. Even public service broadcasters feel compelled to follow the lead of their less well-heeled compatriots.

Spin doctors may be accused of "sexing up" the news but the real culprits are often journalists themselves. Highly selective quotes, partial interpretation, exaggeration, embellishment and embroidery are the stock in trade of all too many journalists today.

I would not claim that politicians are as pure as the driven snow. We make our fair share of mistakes and of course we want our activities and policies to be seen positively. But at least we are kept in check by the forces of democratic accountability.

For journalists there is no electorate, there are no voters, there are no democratic checks and balances. In the market place of ideas the only thing that marks out a decent journalist from a scoundrel or a rogue is good old-fashioned integrity. It's time for a little more integrity and a little less hypocrisy.

It's time for decent journalists to stand up and be counted or before long everyone will be with the character Ruth in Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day. "I'm with you on the free press," she said, "It's the newspapers I can't stand."

Although many indicators show that participation in traditional forms of politics is declining, I do not believe that people are not interested in politics. The success of single-issue groups is one example.

But walk into any bookshop - Michael Moore is outselling Maeve Binchy. Joseph Stiglitz, Greg Palast and Jeremy Paxman have all recently had bestselling serious books about politics. We need to tap into that evident appetite for grown-up political discussion.

Having said all this, I'd take our free media any day over what passes for a free media in Italy, or the supine and largely uncritical reporting in the US. No broadcaster is respected around the world more than the BBC.

It is the way that we in the Westminster bubble engage with people that is the problem (and by "we" I mean politicians and the media).

If we don't crack this problem - and burst this Westminster bubble - then we will all go down together - politicians and political journalists alike. Because the lower turnout falls, the less editors are going to feel they have to cover politics at all. And that spells redundancy for all of us - democratic politics included.