Sketch of Spin

Spin is nothing new. A metaphor which so comfortably settled into the language that calling it cliché would be redundant, the word is a vibrant Englishing of ancient means and ideas of persuasion. When used precisely, it is synonymous with ‘rhetoric’ as used colloquially; it denotes a class of rhetoric that would use language to shade facts that, bare of such tuned language, we would perceive either more positively or more negatively. How distinguishable is this from lying must be decided case by case, but the generalisation that spin is a form of deception (not the same as lying) is a safe one, because it is quite transparently a form of deception—that is, such is conceded by everyone who affects the responses of others to facts by spinning them in communication. What in politics is called ‘spin’ is a universally known and used tool of living, which needn’t entail the making of ‘linguistic choices’ where ordinary selection, or ‘selectivity’, will suffice. Choices about saying are, unambiguously, choices about doing, and it’s these choices—those of simply not saying what would cause difficulty if said—that constitute spin’s least ‘linguistic’ mode; in this extent spin becomes an ethic.

‘It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors’ expenses?’
Email sent by Jo Moore, special adviser to Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, an hour after the destruction of the World Trade Centre

Jo Moore was not subject to open scorn, and then sacked, for couching the bad news about councillors’ expenses in emollient terms. Rather, what sank her was the choice mooted to release the news at a certain time. In a very recent speech, Tony Blair complains

Frequently the problem is as much assembling the facts as giving them. Make a mistake and you quickly transfer from drama into crisis. In the 1960s the government would sometimes, on a serious issue, have a Cabinet lasting two days.

It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day. Things harden within minutes. I mean you can’t let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant.*

Burying news under the ruins of the Twin Towers is a brutish way of ‘assembling the facts’, and it exemplifies spin as palpably as Blair’s choice of that dainty gerund to describe it. Daniel Finkelstein comments, after quoting the passage above,


Obviously, his reply would be that the resulting coverage would be awful. But does this matter? Nowhere near as much as he thinks it does.

This was the key sentence in the entire speech, because interesting though it was, it shows a weakness in Mr Blair – a tendency to take one’s own press cuttings too seriously.

The ethic of spin prioritises the reaction of others over the intrinsic justice of one’s decisions and truth of one’s beliefs; so ingrained is it in Blair’s mentality that he betrays its influence even when assaying criticism of the forces which he blames for causing it.* Thus is the blurring, which now verges on absolute identification, of politics with spin. Consider these book titles: Sultans of Spin: Media and the New Labour Government, Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War. Could the mere exercise of linguistic choice to reflect or embody ideological stance, which after all has been characteristic of politics forever, have occasioned such automatic endorsement of the view that modern politics and spin are equivalent? No, what encourages the assumption is the problem now that spin is an industry, is praxis; it is modus vivendi of all successful politicians because the medium by whose control success is achieved is the medium of perception, not of action—and power is power over perception. Politicians have militarised their self-representation in answer to the media’s own militarisation (several 24-hour news channels, instant distribution, everything filmed), and in the discourse of war, fact, truth, is subordinate to what wins.

*Earlier in the speech: ‘In the analysis I am about to make, I first acknowledge my own complicity. We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media. In our own defence, after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative.’