Politics: How Media Management Spun out of Control, Exposing Dangerous Credibility Gap for Labour

Article excerpt

IT IS A time for cool heads rather than tin hats in Downing Street. The next few weeks will test the mettle of Tony Blair and his team, who have had a remarkably easy time since they came to power three years ago.

All governments suffer from mid-term blues. It is a tribute to the Blair regime that its problems are over "spinning" to the media rather than the economic crises or industrial strife which engulfed previous Labour governments.

However, there are still huge dangers in the current furore about the role of spin-doctors and the allegations by Ken Follett, the millionaire novelist and Labour fund-raiser, that they rubbish out- of-favour ministers on Mr Blair's behalf.

The focus groups on which Mr Blair relies heavily suggest that voters are starting to regard "spin" as a metaphor for the whole Government. To ordinary people, spinning is not about anonymous briefings to journalists but an attempt to mask Labour's failure to deliver its promises to improve education, health and transport and tackle crime. Dislike of spinning can also lead to a lack of trust in Mr Blair himself.

Such hostility cannot be dismissed as a marginal issue and is taken seriously in Downing Street. If it is not nipped in the bud, it could have a big impact on the outcome of the general election expected next year.

In many ways, the furore about spin is a problem of the Government's own making. Labour was brilliant at media management in opposition and so it was natural to carry on spinning when it came to power. "The trouble was that we created a credibility problem," one minister admitted yesterday. "There was bound to be a time when people realised there was a gap between what we said would happen and what we actually achieved."

With hindsight, ministers admit, it was a mistake to over-hype the pounds 40bn extra for health and education announced in 1998. In his ill-fated speech to the Women's Institute last month, Mr Blair renounced both spinning and control freakery when he said: "We in government - and that means me - have to trust people more. We don't need to fight over every headline."

And yet the Government still seems addicted to spinning: the Treasury has already confirmed that another pounds 40bn increase in public spending will be announced later this month.

The addiction also showed in No 10's ferocious counter-attack on Mr Follett which, some ministers believe, fuelled the story rather than damped it down. …