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13th October 1995 at 01:00
Soundbites and Spin Doctors: How politicians Manipulate the Media - and Vice Versa, by Nicholas Jones Cassell #163;16.99 - 0 304 34542 3

Here is the world's worst sound bite. It was delivered by the shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, last year in a televised lecture on Labour's economic policy. Treasure it.

One aspect of the policy was, according to Mr Brown, "the growth of post neo-classical endogenous growth theory and the symbiotic relationships between growth and investment on people and infrastructure."

That little nugget, less than a third of the full sentence that contained it, earned Mr Brown not just a reprimand from the Plain English Campaign, but also from the author of this book, the BBC's political correspondent, Nicholas Jones.

Jones says that, knowing that the lecture was to be televised, "Brown was asking for trouble in failing to check that it would be comprehensible to the average viewer." This is a strange comment. It seems to imply that Mr Brown should have checked by reading the sentence to a number of average viewers, perhaps on a constituency walkabout.

Certainly, it was a tortuous and not very comprehensible sentence, but it provoked in Jones, as well as the chiding, another reaction, sadly too little explored in the rest of the book. This is concern over how complex ideas or detailed expositions are to be put across in a media environment habituated to the relentless pursuit of the sound bite.

This book traces the mutual manipulation of politicians and media over the last decade. It is an interesting exercise rich in detail for politics students, even if it does get too bogged down in the minutiae of fairly minor press conferences and briefings. It is, though, highly valuable in demonstrating the over-reliance that nearly all ministers and political leaders have on their spin doctors (it details how Tony Blair used Peter Mandelson in his election campaign but kept his involvement a secret).

It shows too how Parliamentarians have tended to forget not just the need to articulate complex ideas but that there is a world outside the television studio, culminating in Teresa Gorman's gaffe in the chamber of the House of Commons when she said: "As viewers of this programme will know . . ."

I witnessed the result of the modern politician's media training when I accompanied the former National Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, on a ministerial visit to a northern town recently. Filmed by the local TV station entering a meeting, he walked over to the cameraman, unprompted, and said: "Was that all right, or do you want me to walk in again?" I am probably a little old fashioned in believing that Cabinet ministers should be above this. Given the surfeit of spin doctors (Jones wittily details the infighting between Labour's four holders of the unofficial title of party spin doctor), the situation is likely only to get worse with grooming and sound bites increasingly taking precedence over real argument.Indeed, Jones revealed how Tony Blair refused to give any detailed answers when he interviewed him on a Saturday because Blair, advised by Mandelson, knew that news bulletins on Saturdays were so short he would be granted only a few seconds of sound bite.

But is it all worth it? Reliance on spin doctors has failed to win Labour a single election. And, as the book points out but fails to draw a conclusion on, the late John Smith managed to be a highly popular and effective leader while refusing to appoint a personal press officer or modulate his Scottish tones as a BBC producer asked him impertinently to do. And even more impertinent requests seem to come from Labour's own image makers. Mandelson asked shadow minister Mo Mowlam to call herself Dr Marjorie Mowlam as it was more authoritative. She refused. Barbara Follett urged Harriet Harman to stop wearing her favoured floral dresses and choose shoulder padded suits instead. She acquiesced.

Had Mr Smith lived we might have seen the spin doctors eclipsed and a return to complex academic argument in politics. Such a prospect now is remote.

But would the BBC have broadcast it? Jones traces how televising Parliament has ironically led to less straight reporting of what goes on in the chamber with producers preferring to get comments from MPs on College Green or in the studio. Astonishingly, he relates how some producers "had come to regard the very sight of green leather benches and oak panelling as something of a switch-off, regardless of what MPs might be saying in the chamber."

This has now reached a ludicrous level. When I watched the afternoon of Parliamentary tribute to Harold Wilson on the day his death was announced, I was furious that the BBC cut away from Tony Benn just as he started to speak. Benn, a friend and adversary over nearly 40 years, made a witty, affectionate and moving speech. The BBC preferred to have a journalist in the studio talking vacuously about the Wilson years.

As both media and politicians try to manipulate the political debate (witness last week's furore over Alistair Campbell's fax to the BBC), both sides are increasingly depriving us of intellectual stimulus.

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