Spin is a Public Relations tactic that is a firmly established part of political communication. It is generally thought of as manipulative or deceptive attempt at communication which is employed to enhance the interests of the sponsor, and often implies an element of distortion or Disinformation. Practitioners of Spin are often referred to as Spin Doctors, who carry out Spin Doctoring. Because of the frequent association between Spin and press conferences (especially government press conferences), the room in which these take place is sometimes described as a spin room.
The term Spin was initially applied to the news management techniques of political parties and the image-polishing of politicians, but has recently come to be used in describing the Propaganda activities of corporate and government interests.
Spin is often used to portray events and situations in a beneficial way for the sponsor, through heavily biased interpretation or unwitting Misinformation. Spin often presents only the evidence that supports the sponsor's position, neglects the evidence that conflicts with it, and assumes unproven facts to be wholehearted truths. The notion of Spin also extends to using euphemisms to cover up facts or make them ambiguous, as well as distorting facts to ride a story or burying facts to avoid having them reported.
Please also see our own Definition of spin for further information.
Origins of Modern Political Spin
Political Spin is essentially political Propaganda achieved through news management to deliver a preferred image. As a modern device, it was developed in the late 1970's as a reaction to an increasing trend towards personality as a key factor in politics. Dramatic changes in the technology and market landscape of political reporting forced parties to adapt. The model that eventually emerged was a dual approach to media campaigns.
On the one hand, of this twofold approach, strategists sought to create and market political 'brands' to the public, which is the long-term goal. Whilst on the other hand they aimed to manage the 24/7 news environment through a 'permanent campaign', putting a positive Spin on negative reporting and retaining voter support all year round, not just during elections.
This objectification of politics provided a new role for communications experts or Spin Doctors, who came to dominate Government legislation output throughout the 90's and early 00's. At first Spin Doctors operated in order to remain as invisible as possible to the public, with The Telegraph calling them "among the most shadowy figures in government...unelected and unaccountable to either the public or Parliament".
However, New Labour turned the rule on its head, encouraging high profile communications professionals to publicise themselves in a bid to realign the party as one of change and modernity. This led to the controversy surrounding Alastair Campbell and the September dossier, illuminating to the public the important role that Spin has in creating and helping execute policy.
As the realities of Spin in Westminster, big business and news management have become more widely recognised in the public perception, so too has cynicism with the political establishment risen and inhibited the work of the Spin Doctors themselves. According to one commentator: "The moment when we become aware of the existence of spin is the moment of its disappearance. Effective spin requires a general unawareness of its existence. The contemporary visibility of spin and spin doctors, we must assume, inhibits their effective operation.
Media meta-coverage of the issue has blacklisted Spin in the public eye, and has become a negative asset for UK political brands. Spin has eroded public trust in the political elite and has led to a popular critique that claims all political decisions to be marketing strategic and all politicians to be duplicitous. It has become much harder to trust political messages and political messengers for the public when everything in politics is designed for popular appeal.
The public clamour for authenticity after the Spin revelation and the continuing existence of 'production-line politicians' means that the age of Spin is far from over; but the role and public presence of the Spin Doctor is irreparably different to previous generations. In a 24/7 media environment of meta-coverage, political parties still view Spin as a necessary evil.
The difference with previous administrations is that Spin Doctors are today increasingly veiled from the public spotlight. The rule of thumb of invisibility is being enforced with increasing regiment, so as to make politicians appear authentic in their decisions. The years of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson talking publicly to the press are over. Exposure - as with the case of Andy Coulson - means expulsion.
Examples of Political Spin
The Iraq Dossier
Evidence has suggested that Tony Blair's discredited Iraqi arms dossier was "sexed up" on the instructions of Alastair Campbell, his communications chief, to fit with claims from the US administration that were known to be false. The pre-invasion dossier's worst-case estimate of how long it would take Iraq to acquire a nuclear weapon was allegedly shortened in response to a speech by George W. Bush.
The Cabinet Office has disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act that those who drafted the dossier were immediately asked to compare British claims against the US president's speech. The next day the dossier's timescale was halved to claim Iraq could get the bomb in a year. A Foreign Office official who helped draft the dossier, Tim Dowse, told the Chilcot Inquiry that disputed claims that Iraq had acquired special aluminum tubes for a nuclear programme were included because the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, had publicly referred to them.
Both changes to the weapons dossier were part of a detailed process of comparing the British claims with US statements and those in a forthcoming CIA dossier. The comparisons were made on the express instructions of Campbell. He told the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) chairman, John Scarlett, in a memo on 9 September 2002, that the British dossier should be "one that complements rather than conflicts with" US claims.
The aim of Spin in journalism is to undermine or marginalise independent journalism, control decision-making, and mystify and misinform the public. In doing so, Public Relations is bringing about the death of genuine news through Spin.
The PR industry has even taken over sections of the media. An early example was the 1995 joint venture between ITN and Burson-Marsteller, one of the most controversial PR firms in the world. Corporate Television Networks, which still exists, was based at ITN headquarters with full access to its archives, and made films for Shell and other companies. One media-saturation venture, pioneered by Brunswick, the secretive PR firm, provides a webcasting service for companies such as the private finance initiative firm Atkins and drinks giant Diageo, which are able to make their own uncritical video content that can be published online.
In the US, the integration of journalism and Spin is further advanced than in the UK, and a recent trend has been labeled "journo-lobbying". The new game is to dominate the entire intellectual environment in which officials make policy decisions, which means funding everything from think tanks to phoney Astroturf pressure groups. The PR industry's wider goal of utilising Spin is to do away with independent journalism while maintaining the appearance of independent media.
Examples of Media Spin
Some commentators have accused the Fox News media outputs of employing "spinners" to disseminate brazenly dishonest Propaganda without shame or fear of reprisal, constructing fabrications that benefit their patrons. In the 2012 U.S. election cycle, it is argued that Fox News attempted to manufacture some positive spin on behalf of their Republican sponsors.
For example, virtually every time a new poll on presidential politics is released Fox News will make a point to publish the results. In a particular example of Spin, Fox News based their electoral coverage for one week on a particular poll by the right-wing Rasmussen operation that placed the Republicans ahead of the Democrats 47-43. What Fox neglected to report was that there were three other polls released at the same time that all put the Democrats ahead. The most striking part of this omission was that one of the polls Fox declined to cover was conducted by Fox News itself - which placed the Democrats ahead of the Republicans by 9 points.
Some commentators have argued that this cherry-picking style of coverage by Fox News sends a clear message to journalists and pollsters: if you want to be covered, you better say what Fox likes.
- Wikipedia, Spin (public relations): Description of spin
- Spinwatch, Spin: Articles regarding political, corporate and media Spin
- David Miller and William Dinan (2008), A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power: Critical look at Corporate PR, Spin and Propaganda
- David Miller and William Dinan (2008), PR: The dark history of spin and its threat to genuine news: Article summarising the effects of Spin on journalism
- Neil Manson, The Ethics of Spin: Thesis attempting to provide an ethical framework to view Spin
- Hugo Winn (2013), Is the Age of the Spin-Doctor Over?: Article assessing modern political Spin
- Lisa Stone (2005), Spin Alley: A Microcosm of Journalism’s Struggles: Article discussing how to tackle Spin within journalism
- Michael Powell (2008), Tit for Tat on a Night Where Spin Is Master, New York Times, 22 February 2008, accessed 07 March 2015
- David Miller and William Dinan (2008), A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power, accessed 07 April 2015, London: Pluto Press, pp.2-5.
- James Horton, The Dangers of Spin, Online Public Relations website, accessed 07 April 2015
- Hugo Winn (2013), Is the Age of the Spin-Doctor Over? Huffington Post website, 15 November 2013, accessed 07 April 2015
- Sue Cameron (2012), Stand up, you Spads, and be accountable, The Telegraph website, 02 May 2012, accessed 07 April 2015
- Timothy Bewes, The Spin Cycle: Truth and Appearance in Politics, Signs of the Times website, accessed 07 April 2015
- Chris Ames and Richard Norton-Taylor (2010), Alastair Campbell had Iraq dossier changed to fit US claims, The Guardian website, 10 January 2010, accessed 07 April 2015
- David Miller and William Dinan (2008), PR: The dark history of spin and its threat to genuine news, The Independent website, 14 April 2008, accessed 07 April 2015
- Mark Howard (2012), The 8 Worst Examples of Fox News Election Journalism Malpractice (In Just 8 Weeks), AlterNet website, 28 August 2012, accessed 07 April 2015