Spinning out of Control: Ian Hargreaves Traces the Origins, and Deplores the Impact, of the Unholy Alliance between Public Relations and Politics, Business and Journalism

Article excerpt

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT'S recent announcement of an independent review into government communications is formal acknowledgement of what has been privately recognised within the Blair administration for some time: the culture of spin, which once defined New Labour's brilliance, has been re-defined as an act of self-harm.

Spin has undermined the already shaky trust in politicians, just as it has helped undermine confidence in financial markets. Following the stock-market boom and bust of the last four years, financial market regulators around the world have been asking harder questions about the conflicts of interest involved in the cross-cutting worlds of investment analysis and financial journalism. The more enlightened business journalists have been queueing up to blame themselves for failing to inform their readers earlier about the scandalous conduct of companies like Enron and Worldcom. According to Richard Lambert, until last year Editor of the Financial Times, business journalists were `too influenced by the views of big financial institutions'.

Lambert's views are of a piece with a growing wave of self-examination by journalists around the world, concerned at the declining public use of newspapers and the declining standards of a journalism obsessed by celebrity and sensation. In the USA, a Committee for Concerned Journalists flourishes, advocating a return to core values of accuracy and truth-telling. The committee warns of a threat to the founding constitutional values of the United States as the principle of a free press is corrupted by commercial disregard for journalism as a public good. The history of journalism and public relations sheds a good deal of light on these matters.

Although the idea of `persuasive speech' is as old as Plato, the `first recognisable public relations agency was born in Boston in 1900, when public relations started to emerge as an aspect of modern industrial management during one of America s periodic backlashes against excessive business power. It was the trust-busting President Theodore Roosevelt's ally Gifford Pinchot who remarked that `nothing permanent can be accomplished in this country unless it is backed by sound public sentiment'.

John D. Rockefeller was among the first business leaders to respond to political and press attack by hiring journalists to fight fire with fire. His first public relations `counsellor' was Ivy Ledbetter Lee, son of a Methodist preacher from Georgia, and a former police reporter on Hearst's New York Journal. Lee joined the Rockefeller payroll in 1914, following his skilful work in handling the aftermath of the company's bloody assault against striking Colorado mine-workers and their families (the `Ludlow Massacre') the previous year. One of the radical journalists who reported the massacre, George Creel, made his own name in another branch of public relations, chairing the path-breaking Committee on Public Information which sought to unite public opinion at home and propagandise on behalf of the United States abroad during the First World War. After 1919, Creel's vast programme released into the American private sector a demobbed army of public relations experts.

Edward Bernays, a sometime reporter and Broadway theatrical press agent, worked for the Creel committee, before starting his own agency in 1919. Eight years later, John Hill, another ex-newsman, opened an office in Cleveland, where he was soon joined by Don Knowlton to form Hill and Knowlton, one of the century's largest public relations firms.

Lee was clear that for his techniques to succeed, his clients must deal plainly with the public: that they must show integrity in order to win trust. Only honest companies would meet `the high demands of enlightened public sentiment'. Others took the fledgling business even more seriously. Walter Lippman's seminal book Public Opinion appeared in 1922, recommending the application of social scientific techniques both to the measurement and shaping of public attitudes. …