An exchange about spin doctors on Corporate Engagement, sparked by comments from Paul Taaffe (see below), chimed with a book I have just re-read for Scoop!, called ... Spin Doctor, and written by Michael Shea, who spent ten years as press secretary to the Queen.
I interviewed Shea about his book for The Journal, Newcastle, back in 1996. Here are a few excerpts:
"I believe the spin doctors rule. I believe that so much in political life is to do with perception, to how people are perceived, not what they really are. Perception is reality in public life and the people who control perception are the ones that are really running the place," says Shea.
"You take a B-movie actor (Ronald Reagan) and make him into a president, you take a nice little bank clerk in the shape of John Major and you make him into a prime minister."
Spin doctor is an Americanism, a term for those who practise the black art of manipulating public image, the illusionists who plant an idea here, a rumour there. Theirs is an ancient art, but one that has come into its own in these days of instant communication and media frenzy.
Shea explains: "The whole question of behind the scenes manipulation in political and public life is very interesting. There are the front of stage players, prime ministers, ministers, captains of industry and others in the public eye but I am interested in the people one step behind, those who are whispering the guidelines, the pullers of strings, the writers of briefs, the people who write the speeches for them.
"I am interested in the people who are setting agendas, the grey men and women of the inner corridors of power. That is much more fascinating, and also rather horrifying because these people are not elected, they are not answerable to anybody apart from the person they are working for."
Shea has created his own consummate practitioner, Dr Mark Ivor, to take centre stage in a gripping political thriller Spin Doctor. Ivor, dubbed 'the modern Machiavelli', is one of several people with the access and influence to 'play the PM'; his principal opponent in this web of intrigue is an old-style aristocrat with neo-fascist leanings, Lord Shand. Big business, the secret service, sex, murder and blackmail all play their part in a novel with a plot and texture that should make Jeffrey Archer weep with envy.
Because he has been there, Shea makes Spin Doctor sound all too plausible; indeed Ivor makes a rather self-conscious speech: "With a novel you can ignore reality, put in as fact precisely what you want... A novelist can blend truth and fiction, build warm, sexy relationships."
This reminds readers the book is fiction, but in a way that suggests there might not be so very much blending after all.
There can be a fine line between presentation and distortion, as Shea acknowledges: "Harold Wilson called PR organised lying and a fair amount of organised lying goes on, otherwise we would not have had the Nolan committee and the Scott report. At its worst it can be pretty obnoxious."
But Shea sees benefits too. He prefaces Spin Doctor with a quote from Talleyrand which has a resonance for him: 'Nations would be terrified if they knew by what small men they were governed'.
He explains: "A large number of people in public and political life today are pretty second rate individuals and if you have second rate individuals in high office the field is open for cleverer people to come in and manipulate them.”
Men like Michael Shea play the long game. As he says: "I am quite good at working out what the consequences are going to be of any given action, at weighing up various alternative courses of action and knowing how best to frame statements to put across a point of view."