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Monday 20 April 2009

In the Very Old Loop

Just released is In The Loop, a film by Armando Iannucci about the currently topical subject of behind the scenes spinmeisters, and their effect on government ministers.

Yes, this kind of thing is happening right now somewhere in the Westminster village. But it has been happening not for a few years, but for almost half a century. I’ve not delved any further back than 1964 - perhaps there is yet more to turn up – so my potted digest of spin starts with Joe Haines, who was press secretary to Harold Wilson until he stepped down as Prime Minister in 1976.

Haines remains an ambiguous figure, having later taken the Maxwell shilling and written what was widely regarded as a hagiography of the man that Private Eye cheerfully dubbed the Bouncing Czech. But while he served Wislon, he would, generally, behave in a way that present day lobby correspondents would recognise: keeping bad news out of the media, and otherwise limiting the damage, putting the least worst face on events.

Later, before the term “spin doctor” had been coined, came one of its greatest exponents, Bernard Ingham. Ingham was a career civil servant, but this did not stand in the way of his work behind the scenes in support of Margaret Thatcher during her time at 10 Downing Street. It was Ingham who fed the characterisation to the media of John Biffen – then Leader of the Commons – as “semi detached” (Biffen did not last beyond the next cabinet reshuffle). His briefings were “off the record” which meant that they were not attributable to him. That aspect may just sound familiar.

Ingham also had that characteristic which some saw as “Yorkshire gruff” but which was perhaps best summed up by Thatcher, who once said to him “You know, Bernard, neither of us are smooth people”.

Those who think that spin started with Alastair Campbell just haven’t been in the loop.

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