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?