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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Time for the media to take a different spin
Brendan O'Neill • Irish Post, 25 October 2003

The Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of British weapons expert David Kelly has finished hearing evidence. Kelly killed himself at the end of July after it was revealed that he was the BBC’s source for its claims that New Labour “sexed up” the evidence against Iraq. Lord Hutton will spend the next two months judging whether the government or the BBC (or both) played a part in pushing Kelly over the edge.

Observers of the Inquiry have already picked out their good guys and bad guys. For many in the British media, one of the baddest guys is Tony Blair’s spokesman Tom Kelly (no relation to David). Tom Kelly is the government official who referred to David Kelly as a “Walter Mitty type”, implying that the late scientist had been a hero fantasist.

Tom Kelly’s crass comments made the front pages of the papers. Editorials condemned New Labour for spinning against its opponents even after they were dead. Labour MP Glenda Jackson said: “Number 10’s capacity to disgust us would seem positively boundless.”

Tom Kelly is no stranger to controversy. During his time at the Northern Ireland Office five years ago he was involved in one of New Labour’s most blatant, Machiavellian campaigns of spin. But back then he was forgiven or indeed praised by the media, rather than being hounded. Why?

After working at BBC Belfast Tom Kelly joined the government in the late 1990s. In 1998 he became director of communications at the NIO under Mo Mowlam. One of his first jobs was to prepare a campaign encouraging people to vote “Yes” to the Good Friday Agreement. His proposals were astounding -- enough to make his “Walter Mitty” jibe look like small fry by comparison.

On 4 March 1998, six weeks before the Good Friday Agreement was even agreed by the parties, Tom Kelly authored a document entitled “Information Strategy”. “During the next 10 weeks”, he wrote, “we need to convince the Northern Ireland public of the importance of what is at stake.”

Kelly’s document said the government’s message about the Agreement should be “clear, simple and direct” and ministers should “keep repeating it at every opportunity”. He added: “The momentum towards an agreement…must become a central part of every message government sends, whether the context is the economy, health or even agriculture.”

However, Kelly recognised that this might be seen as “big government imposing its views, which would be entirely counterproductive”. So he suggested that the NIO should “manipulate media/public” by planting pro-Agreement stories in newspapers, magazines and on TV.

“The many weekly newspapers around Northern Ireland offer considerable scope for us to present our message, and the editors of these papers should feature in our efforts to cultivate the media,” he said. His document refers to “intelligence gleaned from informal contacts with key media people” and suggests “bringing together selective influential media people.”

Kelly’s campaign appeared to have the desired effect. Around the same time, in the run-up to the finalisation of the Agreement, the Guardian’s Mark Lawson noticed that: “Daily this week, newspapers publicised without dissent the optimistic predictions of Blairite whisperers of the prospects for a peace deal.”

Kelly also plotted some selective opinion polling. “A key requirement in developing our communications strategy will be a continuing flow of information about public attitudes,” he wrote. “On some occasions this will be helpful to our cause and others not so. It will be important therefore to ensure that not all the results of the opinion polling, etc, will be in the public domain.”

He continued: “It would be open to us to encourage some degree of public opinion polling by newspapers…where we believe the results are likely to be supportive.” He suggested that “bad” poll results should be kept out of the press, while “good” results should be kept in.

Kelly’s strategy for selling the Agreement (even before the Agreement had been finalised, remember) captured the patronising and underhand nature of New Labour spin. Rather than engaging the people of Northern Ireland in a grown-up political debate, some officials seemed to prefer the idea of manipulating the media, the polls and in the end people’s minds.

Yet in contrast to the media furore that greeted his “Walter Mitty” comment this year, Tom Kelly got off lightly in 1998. His report was leaked at the end of March 1998 by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (as part of Paisely’s cynical campaign to bring the peace deal down), but the media just didn’t bite the story.

In late March 1998, Tom Kelly’s document got a mere 27 words on page 10 of the Independent -- the very paper that made a frontpage exclusive of his “Walter Mitty” comment this summer. In the Guardian, the document was relegated to page 7.

Within two weeks the media had forgotten that the document ever existed. On 14 April 1998, after the Agreement was finally unveiled, the Guardian reported the Agreement as “the least duplicitous congruencies of political reality currently on display anywhere. Everything, at a certain level, was on the table, mutually and openly regulated.”

The small matter of a document that proposed manipulating the media and public had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Why did the media get into such a flap over Tom Kelly’s three-word jibe against David Kelly this year, but not over his 10,000-word document in 1998?

It would appear that the British media has an inconsistent approach towards spin. Because the media generally supported the Good Friday Agreement and saw it as a good thing, they were willing to turn a blind eye to some of the underhand methods that brought the Agreement about. That was good spinning for a good cause, it would seem, so the media forgave New Labour’s excesses. The insult made against David Kelly was clearly bad spin, however, in need of a frontpage expose.

If the media took a more consistently critical approach to spin, maybe officials would think twice before trying it again in the future.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

27 October 2003


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Time for the Media to Take a Different Spin

Brendan O Neill


Die Hard. Die Harder!
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The Sound of Silence
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The Raison d'Erte of 'Dissenting Republicans'
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Figures of Dissent
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The Occupation Runs Out of Gas
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