Speaker lays into spin doctors as a 'nuisance'

Ministers ought to talk directly to the press, says Martin

Michael White and Vince Moss
Thursday January 2, 2003
The Guardian

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, yesterday joined growing criticism of the Blair government's excessive reliance on spin when he condemned the dozens of spin doctors and special advisers in Whitehall as "absolute nuisances" and urged ministers to "do away with them".

Days after Clare Short renewed her frustrations with Labour's "crummy" presentation, Mr Martin, an Old Labour politician and Glaswegian former shop floor metalworker, told Radio 5 Live: "I don't think we need spin doctors. There are plenty of them, and certainly I find them a nuisance, because they have got to keep themselves in a job.

"One of the ways they have got to keep themselves in a job is to make sure they are the person that you as journalists have got to deal with.

"Therefore, it is in their best interest to make sure they say to their political masters: 'Look, we as spin doctors are very, very important indeed and you can't do without us'.

"I think that ministers and senior politicians could easily communicate with the media without spin doctors," he said.

Mr Martin's remarks are widely echoed by Labour MPs and are close to being orthodoxy within No 10, where Tony Blair and his communications director, Alastair Campbell, now acknowledge that their frantic efforts to dominate the day's headlines - and keep their tabloid foes at bay - are counter-productive.

Over the past six months they have started a chain of reforms, including monthly prime ministerial press conferences and new briefing practices, designed to open up the communications system. It may all be too late to kill the "all spin, no substance" jibe.

Ms Short, the international development secretary, made a similar admission when she told the Observer last week: "This is basically a good government with a crummy, lousy style ... I think we are a lot better than our image, our style, and, dare I say it, our spin."

As Labour MP for Glasgow Springburn since 1979, and a former lieutenant of Denis Healey, Mr Martin does not come from the left of the party.

But he shares with Ms Short a distaste for modern media management - and, even more vehemently, for most of the modern media, which they regard as trivial and hostile.

Spin doctors, advisers who seek to shape the political agenda as well as to inform it, are a symptom of the current impasse. Mr Martin called them "a nuisance [who] only clog up the system".

Though his relations with the press were prickly for some years, he seems now to be more confident. "There's no harm in speaking to journalists directly and that's what [ministers] should do.

As for spin doctors: "It's a bit like the emperor's clothes. Someone is going to come along one day and say: 'This is a fantasy. We don't need these people. We should do away with them'."