Mark Borkowski on media wobblers, the price of PR at the Pentagon and why Tony Blair is irritably omnipresent
All spun out
Friday November 2, 2001 by Mark Borkowski for the Guardian
The evidence showed that war support was wobbling.
So Tony Blair's inner circle of spin went all Sergeant Jones about the business, tried not to panic, and got itself in an uncontrollable muddle.
All in a tizz, they rushed to launch a smart bomb aimed at the jugular of negative public opinion, but the bomb blew off both their feet.
Spin only works when you can't see the join. In this case, the seams were totally transparent, and now they're tearing apart.
The big mistake was to trail Tony's speech on Tuesday so comprehensively.
The morning papers carried it virtually chapter and verse, so by the time he stood up to give us his call to arms, we all knew what he was going to say and there wasn't a shred of news value to it.
The commentators had already dismantled the text, for better or for worse.
No chance to wonder at the charisma of the man and his wise words. No chance to be drawn together once more by the sheer magnetism of the man and his message.
Just an opportunity to focus on Tony's style of delivery and to expose its tricks, tics and inadequacies to the ruthlessly unforgiving gaze of the sketch-writer.
With the news value of the speech as shot as a Red Cross supply centre, the media chose to focus on Les Dawson-lookalike lady protesters being man-handled by the police - a picture that graphically undermined the PM's thousand words.
These were middle-England pensioners, for God's sake, not a bunch of rentamob dread-locked doo-lally peacenik hippies.
This whole mess (from the government's point of view) completes the discrediting of political PR, and comes at the worst possible moment.
The process is out in the open. The media are making copy out of the business of spinning (just ask Jo Moore).
No longer are journalists dutifully dog-like, regurgitating whatever line or lie is being spun. They are not following orders, and open war has broken out.
The lid really blew when we learned that Downing Street had given the Sun prior notice of the election date.
This didn't go down well at the Daily Mirror, which immediately flexed its muscles against the Sun and the government, with a front page entirely taken up by the headline "This war is a fraud".
Inside, John Pilger mounted a damning and persuasive attack on the conflict. Pilger is a fearsome adversary for even the highest ranking professor of spin, let alone a mere doctor.
His high profile presence at this time is indicative of a major convulsion in the media.
The government's mismanagement of communication this week has put papers on the warpath. Strident, challenging opinion is in - spin is a spent force.
The crass attempts at manipulation have led to a widespread suspension of belief in our leaders and in the war itself.
Distaste for spin has turned to open contempt. We accepted this stuff, grudgingly, as part of the knockabout of local primary school playground politics.
We are now having to operate globally. Is the Downing Street machine up to it?
But who is? The Pentagon seems to think The Rendon Group are the boys for the job.
It has hired the company (at a mere £2,300 per day) to "counter disinformation" and to ensure that the conflict is not perceived as a war against Islam.
It's a pity they weren't in place when Dubya started talking about his crusade.
The Rendon Group has worked, you will be pleased to know, with the government in Haiti. Interestingly, it looks like half the company's top staff used to be employed in the Whitehouse and Congress.
It's a lucrative business getting out of politics to sell your services to politicians.
Meanwhile, the Saudis have pulled in Burston Marsteller (one of the world's largest PR agencies) to provide "issues counselling and crisis management". This sounds worryingly serious to me.
So finally, to inject that necessary note of flippancy, at least this has diverted my attention from having to comment on Geri Halliwell's drag Spice Girls routine or Barrymore's hearts and flowers routine.
And as a footnote, a friend tells me that the words prime minister Tony Blair are an anagram of irritably omnipresent.