The Ethics of Spin

Oliver, Campbell and CoulsonThe Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘spin-doctor’ as ‘a spokesperson for a political party or politician employed to give a favourable interpretation of events to the media’. Yet since the very beginnings of New Labour, spin has evolved to form a seemingly inextricable bond with political communication and strategy. Over the years, ‘spin’ and ‘spin-doctors’ have developed negative connotations, but is spinning absolutely and intrinsically wrong, or has it a justifiable place in modern politics?

Impartiality NB: Despite the negative connotations of ‘spin-doctor’, it will be used neutrally to describe those that hold the position of Political Advisor or Director of Communication.

The most common (and perhaps strongest) argument against the use of spin is as follows: spin inevitably walks hand-in-hand with distrust and deceit, distrust and deceit are wrong, ergo spin is also wrong. Furthermore, some argue that the ‘untruthful’ nature of spin creates a void between the government and the public; with former PM John Major claiming that “the erosion of trust has now reached the point where it is undermining the ability of the government to call on the trust of the people”.

It is also argued that the characteristics and experience required for the job increases the likelihood of unethical practise. This is not to say this is always the case, but it can be argued that the government’s preference for media background, especially thick-skinned tabloid journalists with ‘bite’, may attract a certain character.

Some believe that trust and spin are inversely proportional and spin can create a void of opacity between the government and the public that breaks down the dynamic relationship necessary for a healthy political system. Many people attempt to illustrate this by citing examples from Alastair Campbell’s years in office.

So, to conclude, the leading argument against the use of spin is that it inevitably includes immoral actions, fuelled by typical spin-doctor characteristics, leading to less transparent and accountable governments.

But let us consider the flip side of the coin – a position rarely explored by anyone other than partisans attempting to justify their party’s actions. Some argue that spin is unavoidable, and thus employing a spin-doctor is a more efficient way of articulating the process which everyone engages in.

They believe the world is too complex to try and achieve an objective truth – everyone’s experiences and perceptions (even if of the same situation) can and do differ wildly. In other words, everyone is bias. It is therefore a spin-doctor’s job to present versions of events in a manner that favours the government. Since ‘real’ truth is unattainable, re-presenting the information should not be deemed wrong in itself.

Memories and daily conversations both include recollection and reconstruction of events and experiences; and some argue the reconstruction process will (perhaps unknowingly) be spun in ways favourable to particulars. Media outlets may also practise spin; presenting a version of the truth that will appeal to their target audience is considered by many to be ‘spinning’. Yet in this case, opinionated re-presenting of events (e.g. ‘opinion pieces’) is a common and popular occurrence. Some then argue that in order to achieve some kind of balance, ‘media spin’ must be responded to by ‘government spin’.

Those who are in favour of spinning often argue that deeming spin morally acceptable whilst simultaneously encouraging a rigorous perpetual scrutiny process are not contradictory views. They accept and argue the need for balance in a pluralistic society and are aware of the moral dangers in allowing ends to justify means (and vice versa).

So, the main argument for spin is that since nothing can ever be re-presented and subsequently classed as ‘objectively true’ an inevitable dynamic develops between government, media, interest groups and the public, as they all strive to deliver their messages.

However, it is a common view that in comparison to most jobs, politics is moral minefield – there is an unusually high frequency of moral dilemmas, each with an atypical level of associated risk, with most choices resulting in heavy consequences. Should high moral stakes deter the use of spin, or justify its existence?

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Profile: Ed Balls

Name: Edward BallsEd Balls

Birthdate:25th February 19671

Party: Labour (joined aged 16)2

Education: Nottingham High School (all-boys private); PPE at Keble College, Oxford; Economics at Harvard3 4

Hometown: Born in Norwich, Norfolk; moved to Nottingham aged 85

Current residence: Stoke Newington, North London. Castleford, West Yorkshire6

Current job title: Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer7

Quote from Ed:

The allegation that there was a plot, that there was nastiness, that… brutality, it’s just not true”8

Notable previous jobs:

  • Teaching fellow at Harvard9
  • Financial columnist (FT, Guardian, New Statesmen, Tribune)9
  • Economic Secretary to the Treasury9
  • Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families9
  • Shadow Home Secretary9

Notable for:

  • Chaired Fabian Society10
  • Patron of the British Stammering Association11

Politics:

  • Part of Gordon Brown’s inner circle (Brownite)12 13
  • Came third in 2010 party leadership election14
  • Scrapped SATs tests for 14 year olds15 16

Gaffes:

  • Fined £60 and three points deducted from car license for talking on his mobile whilst driving17
  • Involvement in the expenses scandal: allegedly ‘flipped’ his house three times with his wife, Yvette Cooper18

Other:

  • Joined the Oxford University Conservative Association in order to be allowed to attend political events19
  • Plays violin and bongo drums20
  • Supports Norwich City football club20
  • Ed: “When I was 16 or 17, I would have a small glass of wine at lunch on a Sunday, or a shandy or babycham at Christmas.” Sunday Telegraph 23/9/07 p12

How Stuff Works: Parliamentary Naming – Addressing a fellow MP in the Chamber

The House of Commons is a unique place, full of ancient rules governing everything from what members may say to how they may leave the chamber. With the frequent broadcast of Parliamentary clips and growing popularity of Prime Minister’s Questions, many might wonder why members of parliament refer to each other in the way that they do. The ground rules of addressing fellow MPs in the chamber are as follows:

For the following examples we will use Jeremy Hunt, MP for South West Surrey, and member of the Privy Council, as the person we are addressing.

                Use of names and ‘you’ are not allowed

Referring to an MP by their name, such as ‘Jeremy’ or ‘Hunt’ is unparliamentary.

Using the pronoun ‘you’ is also breach of parliamentary protocol – ‘you’ always refers to the Speaker or Deputy Speaker.

                Official titles must be used instead – Constituency titles

In place of names and pronouns, MPs must refer to each other using official title, for example ‘The Honourable Member for South West Surrey”.

When an MP is also a member of the Privy Council[1], ‘Right’ suffixes their title, ‘The Right Honourable Member for South West Surrey”.

Furthermore, when referring to a Member from the same party, or from a coalition partner, the Member must account for this relationship: ‘My (Right) Honourable Friend, the Member for South West Surrey’.

It is also possible for members to substitute ‘Member’, with ‘Gentleman’ or ‘Lady’.

                Ministerial titles

Those MPs who are Ministers – either Secretaries of State or Junior Ministers – are often referred to as ‘the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport’ or ‘the Minister for <department>’, in place of their parliamentary title. Either their ministerial title or their constituency title may be used and is a choice is at the discretion of the member speaking.

Cross-party co-operation: collaboration or conducive?

John HuttonIn March, John Hutton, the former New Labour Work and Pensions Secretary, published an independent report on public sector pensions, unintentionally eigniting the debate on whether cross-party co-operation should be viewed in a positive or negative light.

As with most overtly partisan issues, opinions are concrete, fierce and bountiful, leading to conclusions which are sometimes drawn viscerally rather than using logic and reason. We hope to break through the tribal emotions and instead present the facts surrounding this incredibly divisive issue.

Impartiality NB: Despite ‘collaboration’ and ‘tribalism’ having strong connotations, in this piece they are used solely as ‘politically non-partisan cooperation’ and ‘the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe’ respectively.

Clearing up the confusion

Many of the arguments against cross-party co-operation can be grouped into two categories: intrinsic arguments and instrumental arguments. The intrinsic argument says that the entire idea of someone from party A aiding party B is wrong, whatever the circumstances. The instrumental argument suggests that co-operation is deplorable, not because of the principle, but because of the situational factors and content of said co-operation.

In the current debate, the flag-bearer of the intrinsic argument is Lord Prescott, who summarised the critic quite succinctly¹:

“They’ve [John Hutton and Frank Field] now turned a Con-Lib Government to a ConLibLab one and made themselves human shields for the most savage and heartless Tory policies in 20 years. Policies that will hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest – the very people Labour was founded to protect.”

John Prescott’s argument was presented months before either Hutton or Field (the government’s ‘poverty czar’) announced their findings, so therefore is an intrinsic objection rather than an instrumental one.

Advocates fear that any cross-party collaboration would ‘blur the lines’ between parties. This would leave the public with only one choice and reduce the ability of the opposition to oppose; leading to a situation where there is less cross-party scrutiny.

Another option is that such co-operation could lead to a more co-operative, collegiate, political environment, that some would view as favourable.

The instrumental argument focuses on content of Hutton’s report, as opposed to the act of producing a report for the Conservatives. If Hutton’s conclusions had supported the instrumentalists views, would these people’s reaction to the collaboration have been different?

Those who support Hutton, Field and Milburn (currently advising the government on social mobility), stress that such co-operation will improve governmental decisions. They believe that this government will make more informed decisions on social mobility through Milburn, on public pensions through Hutton and on reducing poverty through Field. Additionally, it is suggested that cross-party involvement will help ensure fairer policies, and a better critical analysis of policies.

However, John Prescott, among others, believes that by advising the Conservatives, Hutton, Field and Milburn are unwillingly providing electoral cover and giving the Tories more of a mandate². Prescott fears that their involvement will make this government more accepted by the public and therefore cause Labour to suffer in the future.

Some argue that goals like reducing poverty are best achieved with cross-party consensus. Gordon Brown attempted to create a ‘government of all talents’ (GOAT), featuring non-partisan members in order to make the government more responsive and collaborative³. It has been argued that if good policies are created, does it really matter what colour someone’s rosette is, or whether they’re even wearing one at all?

Some will argue that party aims can only be achieved through tight discipline and a unified party operating as one, believing that cross-party cooperation will have an adverse effect on the party.

What do you think? What stance do you support? Should we focus solely on the ends, or do means matter too? Are Hutton and co. right to be involved with their opposition parties? Should cross-party cooperation be encouraged or shunned?

How Stuff Works: The Privy Council (Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council)

The Privy Council (PC) is one of those ancient bodies lost in a fog of age and mystery. Even the law fails to provide any firm statutory definition: according to the Interpretation Act 1978, “‘The Privy Council’ means the Lords and others of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council”1. Dating back to approximately the 11/12th Century, the PC formed whilst the sovereign governed by divine right. Since then, functions such as Parliament and the courts of law have evolved. Some of these institutions were founded independently of the PC, but others stemmed from the PC into a distinct body. Over the years, it seems that most of the useful and articulate substance of the Council has been extracted, and left it with a miscellaneous mush of duties.

Over 540 counsellors make up the PC, including senior politicians, cabinet ministers, judiciary, church figures and previous MPs (and currently Prince Phillip). Once the oath of allegiance that dates back to 12502 has been sworn, appointment is for life. In theory, the Queen can appoint anyone, but in practise, it is usually on the recommendation of the government. Until recently, members of the PC would take precedence over other MPs when speaking in the House of Commons chamber, and could speak for longer. The Lord President of the PC is always a cabinet minister, and usually leader of one of the Parliamentary Houses. Since May 2010 up to the present day, the Lord President of the PC is the Rt Hon Nick Clegg3.

 

Discarding the circular definition given by the Interpretation Act, essentially, the PC is a group of advisors to the sovereign. It’s vaguely split into two parts; the Council and the Judicial Committee. The Council are to officially advise on both “the exercise of prerogative powers”4 and the Queen’s personal powers, before performing them on her behalf. Counsellors may make orders that bypass Parliament and therefore avoid any compulsory compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998. Once passed, these orders have the same strength as Parliament-enacted laws. The discussions within the PC meetings range from the Royal Wedding5 to the UN restrictive measures on Libya6. Patrick O’Connor Q.C., who wrote a paper on the role of the PC, claimed “There can be no consistent rationale for these diverse functions. They are little more than a rag bag of historical accidents”7.

Roger Smith, JUSTICE Director, acknowledges that “many people may have heard of [the Privy Council’s] Judicial Committee” which has a much more defined role than that of the Council. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) operates differently to normal courts to “humbly advise Her Majesty” whilst holding the power to save people from death. Usually it comprises of 12 law lords from the highest court (Appellate Court) but occasionally employs prominent foreign judges. It acts as the final court of appeal to many former colonies, Commonwealth countries and overseas territories e.g. the Isle of Man. However, since 19318, many have cut their ties with the JCPC including Canada, Australia, India and New Zealand9. In October 2009 the court moved from the Council Chamber in Downing Street to the Supreme Court10, and now deals with approximately 55-65 Commonwealth and devolution appeals each year11.

Of course, as with any institution, there is a deep history, but this provides an outline to one of the most opaque bodies in this age of the transparent government.