Have we got views for Mandelson

24th October 1997 at 01:00
How do you feel about having your news manipulated? Does it matter to you if someone is putting a spin on the facts and views served up in headlines or soundbites? Should you care if the journalist in the sandwich is idle and credulous, rather than a sifter and a searcher after truth? What has it got to do with education?

Well. there is certainly a link to be found in the accident rate from the collision between the Prime Minister's spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell and the Government information services. A week ago Jonathan Haslam, appointed only last May to the Department for Education and Employment, accepted a better offer and became the seventh Whitehall director of information to resign since the election. Will he be replaced by a spin doctor? Watch this space.

"The media are obsessed with spin doctors," according to Charlie Whelan, the cheerful thug who spins for the Chancellor. "The great British public are not."

Maybe it was this carelessness about public opinion which induced Whelan to put his spinning techniques so openly on display in We are the Treasury, the recent fly-on-the-wall Network First special for ITV. The way in which he successfully packaged Gordon Brown's message for The Sun and the Evening Standard has certainly obsessed the media ever since, and especially its financial sections.

What I found most telling were the reactions of City journalists who, having swiftly disposed of the big news inside the packaging (shifting control of interest rates to the Bank of England, and taking watchdog powers away from it), said what they really thought. Financial hacks said stories are leaked to lobby correspondents because the politicians know that the City staff would ask the tricky follow-up questions.

A Sunday paper analysis took up the theme. "Economic correspondents have been cut off," according to a veteran Treasury-watcher quoted in the Independent on Sunday Business section. "The Treasury deals only with political reporters. The careers of lobby reporters depend on scoops. This gives the Treasury greater leverage than they would have over economics correspondents."

Sounds familiar? Well, maybe you had to be an education journalist during the darkest days of the last Government to pick up the most bitter echoes. Financial journalists are at the heart of this incestuous story now, especially since the single-currency spin became the main obsession. Not so long ago it was overseas development minister Clare Short who was railing against the way the lobby swallowed the "golden elephant" leak. But education correspondents, and readers on their territory, have been there too.

Five or six years ago, when teacher trainers were cowering under fire from politicians and far-out think-tanks, I visited a college of higher education. The head of teacher education wasn't sure if he wanted to talk to me, or anyone, but silently handed over a sheaf of cuttings to show me what they were up against. I have quoted from them more than once since when asked to speak about the war between the press and education, and they have never made me feel proud to be a journalist.

Remember the headlines I mean? "Turning the tables on those trendy teachers", "At last, trendy teachers' days are numbered", "Do we really need these colleges?" "Trendy teaching attack", "Patten to stamp out 'trendy' teaching".

One of the stories was by a tabloid columnist, the rest by political correspondents who went on to write as they had so clearly been briefed by Ken Clarke or John Patten about "crackpot" theories and "the biggest shake-up of teacher training since the war". What did this unholy alliance mean by "trendy"? Which of them knew the first thing about teacher training or its reform, or where the weak links really were? Did any chief political correspondent ever meet or interview a trendy teacher trainer, or even quiz their own colleagues on the education desk to check out the background facts or the awkward questions to put? Do I need to ask?

John Patten, as education secretary, developed the technique of using the lobby to bypass education correspondents to destruction point, and finally insulated himself and his department so thoroughly from critical opinion on his patch that it was his own destruction that was the story. But the reputation and spirits of teachers and their trainers have not yet been restored, which is one good reason why Anthea Millett is now having to spend so much of the Teacher Training Agency's budget on a PR campaign to blot out those carefully planted negative messages with something much more like The TES's own "My Best Teacher" feature.

The spinning now is generally subtler and more skilful under New Labour's new order, but the tendency to put a gloss on education stories for political reporters, rather than brief the specialists, sometimes backfired during the election campaign. Sadly, it hasn't quite gone away, though you would think it would be safe enough now to submit the message to some healthy, well-informed cut and thrust.

Instead we have Peter Mandelson getting a grip on media monitoring. The word is that Whitehall's press officers, being mostly several credits short of a New Labour spin-doctorate, must henceforth be co-ordinated and controlled more tightly by the Minister Without Portfolio himself if chaos is to be avoided. A few journalists with healthy instincts have condemned this as Orwellian. Mandelson responds piously that "we have a duty to explain". My own past experience of the Department for Education and Employment press office suggests that could be an improvement.

Of course it takes two to tango. News management depends on journalists as well as on sensitive ministers and their advisers. It's hard, I know, to subject policies you have nurtured for so long to critical questions from specialists who understand the snags. But, however much they may welcome initiatives, there are always hard questions to be asked and answered before policies are likely to work on the ground. Democracy depends on informed scrutiny. Equally, it is up to the journalists to scrutinise; simply to file what ministers may have murmured over a glass in Westminster is not enough. Unless we remember what journalists are for, the danger remains.

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