1.Everyone shall possess the right to freely express and publicise his thoughts in words, images or by any other means, as well as the right to inform others, inform himself and be informed without hindrance or discrimination 2.Exercise of the said rights shall not be hindered or limited by any type or form of censorship Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, Article 37.º

Spin It Clarence!

Spin is not the answer

By hiring their very own Alastair Campbell, the McCanns have fuelled the doubts they seek to allay

Mark Lawson
Friday October 26, 2007
The Guardian

The pattern was familiar from politics: following a major interview, public and pundits dissect the answers given and not given, while the official press spokesman for the interviewee takes to the airwaves to explain what the responses really meant.

The latest subjects of this strategy, however, were not politicians, but Kate and Gerry McCann. Listening to Clarence Mitchell answering on their behalf on numerous news outlets yesterday morning, it struck me that one of the most remarkable aspects of the Madeleine McCann case is that her parents are the first private citizens to have their very own Alastair Campbell.

And yet, listening to the phone-in callers piling in with still more sceptical derision after their Spanish television interview and Mitchell's glossary on it, I also felt that their decision to respond to family tragedy with political methods has been a terrible error. By using manoeuvrings designed for vote-grabbing, they increasingly risk the treatment that politicians receive: the belief that they are public property and that everyone has a right to an opinion on their character and veracity.

Admittedly, in one way the McCann case has gone far beyond the political model. The two most celebrated image-manipulators of modern politics - Alastair Campbell and James Carville - had a rule about the attention span of the media. They believed that there was a limited length of time - Clinton's man first put it at nine days, Blair's at 11 - for which the same story would stay on the front pages before other events provided a distraction.

The disappearance of a four-year-old on holiday, though, has shattered these calculations. The name of Madeleine McCann has now appeared on the front pages of the Daily and Sunday Express for getting on for 180 days now, with most other mainstream papers of all kinds coinciding for at least half of those. Judged by sheer unanimity of coverage across all titles, the last equivalent story was probably the second world war.

Some of this has happened because of a change in media priorities: a retreat from serious political events towards the kind of news that could plausibly be the storyline for a Hollywood film - the obsession with Princess Diana, who has occasionally been allowed to share an Express front page with Madeleine, began this bias in reporting.

But, above all else, this domination of the front pages has happened because the McCanns have encouraged it and their financial backers have funded it. The reason the nine-day/11-day rule has not applied is that Campbell and Carville were working on a model in which the subject of the journalism wants the coverage to stop, and therefore adopts tactics - of silence or diversion - which encourage reporters to look elsewhere. If the events in Portugal were to have a clear ending of any kind, Madeleine's parents would share the usual human desire to halt media interest but, for the moment, their desperate desire to keep the public looking for their daughter has led them to court publicity.

It was presumably for this reason that the McCanns became the first doctors to have a spin doctor. Previous civilians who have attracted public interest, usually through sex with a celebrity, have had Max Clifford speaking on their behalf, but his role is not usually spokesman but broker, placing their revelations in a single paper for a slice of cash. Clarence Mitchell, in contrast, briefs universally for free in the style established by the White House and followed by Downing Street.

It's easy to see how the McCanns fell into the trap of getting a press spokesman. Though firmly protesting their innocence of the insinuations by Portuguese press and police, those suggestions of guilt have caused them to believe that they need their own counter-voice.

The problem with this approach is that the traditional purpose of spin doctors is to convince people that a leader hasn't quite done what he probably did. The more often the press guy comes to the podium, the closer his boss's career is to being over.

Another difficulty is that Mitchell is usually commenting on events of which he has no firsthand knowledge, so his briefings tend to elide fact with assertion. And his habit of answering one question but then deflecting the next on the grounds that a response would break Portuguese judicial rules may be legally necessary but transmits a sense of slipperiness.

The biggest drawback, though, is that the McCanns have turned to spin and media manipulation at the precise moment these arts are most discredited in politics. What they say in an attempt to keep their child's face in people's minds has the effect of turning a daily spotlight on them. Anecdote and phone-ins suggest these appearances increase the resentment and suspicion they are aiming to defuse. Their tragedy is becoming a public relations disaster.


In public relations, spin is a sometimes pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics. Politicians are often accused of spin by commentators and political opponents, when they produce a counter argument or position.

The techniques of "spin" include:

* Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one's position (cherry picking)
* Non-denial denial
* Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths
* Euphemisms to disguise or promote one's agenda
* Ambiguity
* Skirting
* Rejecting the validity of hypotheticals
* Appealing to internal policies

Another spin technique involves careful choice of timing in the release of certain news so it can take advantage of prominent events in the news. A famous reference to this practice occurred when British Government press officer Jo Moore used the phrase It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury, (widely paraphrased or misquoted as "It's a good day to bury bad news"), in an email sent on September 11, 2001. The furor caused when this email was reported in the press eventually caused her to resign.

Spin doctor

Skilled practitioners of spin are sometimes called "spin doctors", though probably not to their faces unless it is said facetiously. It is the PR equivalent of calling a writer a "hack". Perhaps the most well-known person in the UK often described as a "spin doctor" is Alastair Campbell, who was involved with Tony Blair's public relations between 1994 and 2003, and also played a controversial role as press relations officer to the British and Irish Lions rugby union side during their 2005 tour of New Zealand.

State-run media in many countries also engage in spin by selectively allowing news stories that are favorable to the government while censoring anything that could be considered critical. They may also use propaganda to indoctrinate or actively influence citizens' opinions.


* Publicity events, pseudo-events, photo ops or publicity stunts
* The talk show circuit. A PR spokesperson (or his/her client) "does the circuit" by being interviewed on television and radio talk shows with audiences that the client wishes to reach.
* Books and other writings
* After a PR practitioner has been working in the field for a while, he or she accumulates a list of contacts in the media and elsewhere in the public affairs sphere. This "Rolodex" becomes a prized asset, and job announcements sometimes even ask for candidates with an existing Rolodex, especially those in the media relations area of PR.
* Direct communication (carrying messages directly to constituents, rather than through the mass media) with, e.g., newsletters – in print and e-letters.
* Collateral literature, traditionally in print and now predominantly as web sites.
* Speeches to constituent groups and professional organizations; receptions; seminars, and other events; personal appearances.
* The slang term for a PR practitioner or publicist is a "flack."

A website devoted to monitoring and exposing PR distortions and spin in the media.

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This website examines the various modes of media manipulation, including public relations, fake news and propaganda.

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