BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

Politics unbriefed

Gary Smith | 16:57 UK time, Tuesday, 10 July 2007

This week we’ve seen what may turn out to be the past and future of Labour politics.

The past came in the form of the publication of Alastair Campbell’s diaries. This was a launch tightly controlled in the way New Labour perfected in opposition over ten years ago. Campbell made himself available for big interviews on BBC One with Andrew Marr on Sunday (watch here), and on Radio Four with John Humphrys on Monday (listen here) - but neither of them was allowed to see a copy of the book before they did the interview.

There was no newspaper serialisation of extracts, as there often is with political books – Campbell said he didn’t want to cash in by using the papers he’d so often attacked. The only extracts available were the ones chosen by Campbell himself and published on his own website.

And as Nick Robinson points out on his Newslog even the entire book itself - once you get hold of a copy - is just “extracts” from Campbell’s diaries, chosen by him for political reasons, rather than a full unexpurgated record of his time as Tony Blair’s press secretary.

So it could be argued this was the old politics of spin – tell people what the story is before they have a chance to work it out for themselves, and then tell them only what you want them to hear rather than the full story.

That’s the past. The future seems to be the style adopted by Gordon Brown’s government for launching its policies. Already we’ve seen this a few times – last week John Denham, the man in charge of Higher Education, surprised some journalists by not sending out his advisers to brief ahead of a Commons statement on changes to student grants; on Tuesday, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, was making a Commons statement, similarly without pre-briefing; and Gordon Brown is due to tell the Commons on Wednesday about his future legislative plans - we can guess at the content, but so far, no briefing.

This is an interesting change. If the government sticks with it, we’ll no longer be waking up to stories saying “the prime minister will today announce…”, followed by an interview with a minister who - after insisting he mustn’t pre-empt his leader’s statement to parliament - then proceeds to spell out the key details. Instead, we’ll all have to wait till the PM or minister actually makes his announcement in the Commons.

No bad thing you may say. Certainly that’s the reaction from my colleagues at BBC Parliament, who are naturally pleased when government policy is revealed first in the chamber. On the other hand, you may feel you like due warning of what’s coming up, so you can judge whether to tune in to a government statement on News 24 or Five Live. What’s your view?


  • 1.
  • At 07:42 PM on 10 Jul 2007,
  • Heidi wrote:

A welcome change. I always found the 'today the Minister for ... will announce type headlines and stories ridiculous.

  • 2.
  • At 08:55 PM on 10 Jul 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

Yes, after the last 10 years, this can only be a good thing.

And before the usual crowd start howling about you showing government bias, I should like to point out that hinting at approval of this is not about being pro-Gordon Brown, it's about being pro-politics. It has nothing to do with left/right affiliations.

  • 3.
  • At 10:28 PM on 10 Jul 2007,
  • nehad ismail, camberley, england wrote:

I would like to comment on the publication of Alastair Campbells' diaries the second Tony Blair stepped aside.
I would ask; was Alastair Campbell doing his job properly or was he monitoring everything the former Prime Minister said and making notes as he went along. Was he on purpose planning the accummulation of notes for future publication, in either case, he was neglecting the main job he was paid to do.

  • 4.
  • At 10:50 PM on 10 Jul 2007,
  • Mike Staunton wrote:

I for one will welcome the disappearance of such news previews - and the BBC shouldn't have gone along with pretending they were news in the first place

Once the speech has been made, it's news - before that it's just a leak by one or other side

It used to be a sacking offence to reveal budget secrets ahead of time but now the newspapers and the BBC routinely give such accurate guesses of measures that can only have come from briefings from Treasury ministers or their associated spin doctors

How polices are announced doesn't bother me. It's how they are executed that matters.

  • 6.
  • At 01:02 AM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • Michael McFarlane wrote:

No offence intended but, "Spin-Politics" was created and nourished by the likes off yourself and the industry you work for. I would rather you and the BBC asked questions about Campbell's knowledge and/or involvement in the death of Dr David Kelly, and the decision to go to war.

Other than that, I'm not interested in the `SLUG`!.

  • 7.
  • At 01:21 AM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • miriam wrote:


I like it being unpredictable, that we have to pay attention and let the ministers establish reputations, rather than just spinning a line.

I might actually feel like I have some idea of individual personalities in government now, because it will be down to their ability to present information, rather than their communications guys ability to talk up the announcement.

We'll get the usual nay-sayers, but we're back to an older sort of politics. And it should be interesting to see an engagement with the issues. The pre-session briefing in the commons might allow for a genuine debate after the queens speech in the autumn, and something to keep hacks occupied in the silly season.

  • 8.
  • At 02:07 AM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • Hasan wrote:

When you have pre-briefing, people will be able to count the losers and winners from each policy and fix their minds about it. As it goes to the common . the MPs will have a position while now we have a sudden policy announcements like the budget which was a surprise but still all spin no substance.

  • 9.
  • At 02:28 AM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • karen kaufman wrote:

As an american citizen i think its a great way to conduct govt business; wish we would try that at all levels. too much pre and post for me.

  • 10.
  • At 07:15 AM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • Dean wrote:

"...neither of them was allowed to see a copy of the book before they did the interview."

Then why did you interview him the day of the launch? You're the one with the audience; you set the date of the interview. If Campbell didn't want to give you a preview copy -- as is his right -- why didn't you schedule the interview for the day after the launch and buy the book first? I'd rather listen to an intelligent interview than a quick one.

And when were memoirs anything but a chance for the author to put his side of the story? As readers, we understand that. We're not fools.

I'm neither for nor against Campbell but this is a pretty shoddy attack.

  • 11.
  • At 09:22 AM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • Dave J wrote:

I think it will make political journalism more interesting.

Instead of the journalist being fully prepared; story and analysis already written and broadcast along the "Today the PM will announce..." lines, we will see some genuine reaction to new policies. There's the distinct possibility that journalists, who will try to speculate beforehand about what will be announced, will be wrong-footed and have to come up with their analysis at short notice.

So I guess it could be more exciting for the journalists, as well.

  • 12.
  • At 10:44 AM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

I reckon this could be a change for the better. Instead of trying to pander to Rupert Murdoch, et al. We'll have a government doing what it actually thinks is best, rather than what's going to keep it in a favourable light, and thus re-electable.

  • 13.
  • At 11:16 AM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • J Westerman wrote:

Many people are completely fed up with speculation and gratuitous opinions. It will be really nice to see what happens before the hounds are let loose.

  • 14.
  • At 01:35 PM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • Katie wrote:

It's definitely very refreshing to not have politics news pre-announced in this way. It's bringing true politics back to Westminster, which after ten years of spin, may be just what is needed now.

  • 15.
  • At 01:38 PM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • Adam wrote:

Yes, it's better that policies are announced to parliament than to the press. But let's face it, it's not exactly all that important where they are announced. I'm with comment #5 on this one.

It will take more than window dressing to convince me that Gordon Brown is seriously interested in a new kind of politics rather than all the old lies and sleaze.

  • 16.
  • At 02:03 PM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • Nick Longworth wrote:

As a former political spin doctor I'd advise waiting to see how long it lasts.
The reason for pre-briefing is to gain two or more 'hits' for any one story. The 'leak' trail in the morning newspapers, followed by the key pre-interview on the breakfast TV and radio. Then, the lunchtime bulletins and evening bulletins, followed by the next day's papers.
If all statements are to be announced first in the Commons, the 'hit' will be only the evening bulletins, rolling news and the next day's papers. It also makes a political announcement more vulnerable to 'events' that - as a fact of life - tend to occur during the day rather than overnight.
I can't see the policy surviving the first major announcement that is drowned out by an event (celeb story / deaths in Iraq / bombs, etc.).
This will also make life very difficult for the producers and editors of the morning TV and radio sequences as they will rarely have exclusives or 'break' news stories. It will be great for rolling news (N24 and Sky) and level the playing field for the daily newspapers. It will also boost the internet as a news source.
Campbell's version of spin was to use information as a tool - to bully, cajole, play favourites - but that can only be done when you have something the media are desparate for. He was in that position at the beginning of the Blair administration, but not by the time he left Blair's side. He also used up all good will and trust very rapidly, which undermined his effectiveness as Blair's chief communicator.
The more professional version of spin - winning the best possible coverage, at the best possible time and reaching the biggest possible audience - will always be with us. Pre-announcing policies and will back before you can say 'Charlie Whelan'.

  • 17.
  • At 02:52 PM on 11 Jul 2007,
  • jimc wrote:

I agree with Dean No 9.
But why do you at bbc give so much time to AC? He is the "murky" past

  • 18.
  • At 11:20 AM on 12 Jul 2007,
  • John Anderson wrote:

Yet again, the BBC proved an easy conquest for Alastair Campbell. It takes a special level of gullibility to make so much time available for the promotion of a book without first having the opportunity to examine the contents; how could any serious challenges or comment be made? You were conned into being a vehicle for the self-promotion and benefit of someone I regard as a disreputable opportunist. You spent my money foolishly.

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.