Allan Takes Aim Blog

Canberra beware: spin doctors swarming

Posted on: 10 March 2010


Published The Chronicle, Canberra, Tuesday March 2, 2010

The swarms of spin doctors gathering in Canberra indicate a Federal election is due. But be advised also that to avoid their spin affecting your mental health, you might be wise to go on retreat to a Trappist monastery, a place where idle talk is not encouraged.

Believe it or not but in the early nineties before Alastair Campbell became chief spin doctor for British PM Tony Blair, a New York Rock group, the Spin Doctors, were deafening or delighting people – depending on their taste in music – with a couple of records “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”. And no, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan are not dopplegangers of the two princes nor is the second title spelled wrongly: it is Wrong not Wong.

So what is a spin-doctor? Campbell styled himself Director of Communications and Strategy, which ties up with the definition in the pocket size modern English Oxford Dictionary that says a spin-doctor is a person who publicizes favourable interpretations of the words and actions of public figures [especially, but not exclusively, politicians].

In other words, spin doctors make statements for politicians whose relationship to the truth is, by any measure, tenuous. Increasingly it is also becoming the practice for politicians to do their own spin doctoring a practice that many of them often come to regret when later it becomes obvious the statement they made is a millstone round their neck.

While I have no argument with the OED’s short definition of spin doctor I think the words of Quintus Tullius Cicero (102 BC – 43 BC), younger brother of the celebrated orator, philosopher and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, define more accurately and elegantly, who and what is a spin doctor.

Although not comparing Quintus Tullius’s words describing a spin doctor to those of the OED, were QT around today I think he might stand in awe at how his advice of centuries ago has been adopted by public relations advisers to Prime Ministers, Ministers, Opposition Leaders, Shadow Ministers and very ambitious back bench politicians. Could it be that all of them have read Quintus’s advice? “Lastly, take care that your whole candidature is full of éclat, brilliant, splendid, suited to the popular taste, presenting a spectacle of the utmost dignity and magnificence. See also, if possible, that some new scandal is started against your competitors for crime or looseness of life or corruption, such as is in harmony with their characters.”

Spin doctoring, of course, is not the exclusive to federal politics; even if they have never heard of Quintus Tullius, advisers to both State and Territory politicians are also practitioners. Indeed I am inclined to think spin doctoring is a genetic condition that gets passed on from generation to generation. At the same time, and based on the amount of spin doctoring that goes on today, it would seem to be a highly contagious condition.

Worse, it is now difficult to distinguish between spin doctoring and genuine policy something I’ve noticed in the ACT Government. In fact so difficult is it to make the distinction I’ve come to the conclusion that the Government’s media minders have read the Quintus Tullius quote, which is why when being interviewed by the press, radio or TV, MLAs always make positive statements about how well the Government’s heath, housing, education and planning programmes et al, are working, even when obvious to voters they are not.

Take the more “affordable” homes programme. Government says it is a success. Unfortunately the beneficiaries of this success are not Canberra’s homeless or building tradesmen but unemployed interstate building tradesmen who move to Canberra because of shortages in this area. And even some “poor” developers will benefit.

The spin doctoring then continues as Government claims its Live in Canberra Campaign is a success, citing population increase as evidence. The truth is that much of the population increase is due to the temporary influx of the skilled building workers who on arrival, are rewarded by the Chief Minister with free cinema tickets, free restaurant meals and free activities for their children.

As for being free, I can only say that in the context of the foregoing, free is nothing less than spin doctoring.
dca@netspeed.com.au
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