Tune in, switch off - The art of spin wears thin

22nd May 2009 at 01:00

"Don't mention the war." That's what Gordon Brown must have been muttering as he saw the shots of himself in that Lewisham school with Nazi swastikas on the wall behind him. As they ran the pictures on news broadcasts throughout the evening and for days afterwards, I thought only of the distress they would cause.

It was the school I was concerned about. Weeks of preparation, everything polished and gleaming. This was billed as the educational equivalent of a moon landing. It had to be perfect. Imagine the staff meeting inquest afterwards. "Right. Own up. Who forgot to take down the swastikas? You? Well you can kiss goodbye to your threshold progression, matey."

Then someone forgets to tidy up the wall displays. If Peter Capaldi's expletive-driven spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker, from The Thick of It and In the Loop had turned up, the unfortunate member of staff would have had their career, reputation and the contents of their bag blown to pieces in front of them, along with the swastika.

I should know, as I was there. The swastikas were just the half of it. No one filmed the bizarre moment myself and the rest of the "room meat", as we would be called by political window dressers, witnessed just before the PM delivered his highly trailed speech about changing the educational world.

The TV broadcasters were all doing their sound checks and everyone was looking important. It was like waiting in church for the bride to arrive. Then an aide (or was it the head's PA?) suddenly noticed the water jug contained a sliced lemon. Mr Brown must be allergic to lemon because the aide furtively dipped her hand in the water and the lemon was removed as skilfully as if it were a dead fish.

In the week we had been campaigning for greater hygiene to prevent the spread of swine flu, it had us all covering our faces with hankies. Stifling giggles as the cameras from the news organisations rolled, we watched in horror when the PM poured a drink, unaware of the human touch.

If all this sounds like satire, that naturally brings me to Mark Lawson talks to Ian Hislop, BBC4. The ever-chirpy Private Eye editor defended his satirical art as "illuminating and informative" even if not powerful enough to topple the Government. It was fascinating to watch these giant brains, critic and satirist, interacting, distracted only by the photographic memorabilia and video clips that stopped me complaining it would work better on radio.

In the week we heard of the demise of The South Bank Show, it was reassuring to see that the talking head format still rocks.

Describing his battles against vested interests, Hislop defended his paper as "where you read the news".

Out to get him, muck-raking journalists once even asked his village vicar if he had any gossip. This was war, but without the swastikas.

Ray Tarleton is principal at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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