Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Spin cycle

One of the best blogs around at the moment is Dizzy Thinks, which today features this little tale about the announcement of some Government funding for the nine English regions "to tackle local congestion and inform the debate on a national road pricing scheme."

As Dizzy rightly points out, the sum of money in question - £7.5m - actually only works out at around £800,000 per region, a figure which "wouldn't pay for much more than the hot air consultancy fees" and which compares with the £200m cost of introducing congestion charging in London.

"However, the real killer comes in the second paragraph of the press release. It says the "money comes from the second round of an £18 million fund, set up in July 2005". So errr. hang on second... it's not a further £7.5 million at all, it's the same money from a lump sum already agreed and announced."
A story of little consequence in itself, then, but one which illustrates a wider truth about the Blair Government and its use of the technique of "repeat messaging."

This was an idea originally developed by New Labour in opposition which they have carried with them all the way though government. It works on the Orwellian premise that if you repeat something often enough, the people will have no alternative but to believe it.

Thus the life-cycle of a typical Government announcement would look something like this:

  • 1. A forthcoming Government initiative is leaked to a friendly newspaper. The story is neither officially denied nor confirmed, but by giving someone an exclusive, it guarantees big headlines for the story in at least one newspaper and guaranteed follow-ups in all the rest.

  • 2. A few weeks later, the story is confirmed in a ministerial press release, which receives little coverage other than perhaps a few pars in the Guardian's Society supplement.

  • 3. Gordon Brown reannounces it in the Budget. Close analysis of Gordon's Budget speeches show that most of the contents, especially those relating to spending announcements rather than taxation, have already been announced.

  • 4. The relevant Government department then produces its own separate release setting out further details of the Budget "announcement," followed by

  • 5. Nine separate regional press releases setting out what the Budget "announcement" will mean for each region, which are usually identical apart from the insertion of the words North-East/North-West/East Midlands etc.

  • 6. The money finally comes on stream, enabling the relevant department to announce it yet again.

  • 7. Regional ministerial visits are organised around the announcement, showing how it is being spent in a particular region with acompanying photo-ops. Theoretically, there could be as many as nine of these.

  • 8. The second round of funding comes on stream, as in Dizzy's example above, potentially kicking off the whole process again.

    Of course, like much else about New Labour's news management techniques, the whole policy of repeat messaging has backfired spectacularly. The one question journalists always ask about these kind of announcements is: "Is it new money?"

    When, nine times out of 10, the answer to that question turns out to be no, it becomes very easy to conclude that nothing the Government announces is funded from new money, with the result that even genuinely new announcements are then routinely ignored.

    I think the record for Government reannouncements is held by the launch of the Regional Venture Capital Fund, which began life in the Department of Environment, Transport and Regions, and was then transferred after the 2001 election to the DTI which decided to reannounce it all over again.

    Even though it was an initiative designed to help poorer regions like the North-East, I must confess that, after the first five times, I simply gave up on it.

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    Toque said...

    What an astute post, how very true...

    Cynicism abounds and rightly so.

    dizzy said...

    Thanks for the props Paul. I am of coruse yet to progress to the "fine wine" status in my style.

    james higham said...

    Do you think they thought this out for themselves or did the department do it for them?

    MorrisOx said...

    The way Whitehall PRs behave is enough to make you lapse into a coma.

    What gets me is that even now, after all these years of utter news management b****cks, they still look at you aghast when you tell them you're not in the least bit interested in that 'exclusive' one-to-one with a minister.

    Think about it: how would you fancy doing your homework, framing your questions, and then finding it turns out to be five grabbed minutes where said minister ignores everything you ask and talks at you?


    MorrisOx said...

    Remember, of course, that this now almost comical double-counting goes on even after the money has passed outside Government departments into delivery agencies.

    Those same Regional Venture Capital Funds that you mentioned have since become an 'achievement' of Regional Development Agencies, these semi-secret quangos also taking the credit for any European investment that passes across their desks.

    Nothing like equality of opportunity, esepcially when it comes to bragging rights.

    pvnam_3 said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Richard Bailey said...


    I resemble your remarks!!!
    Sorry, hands up. I did that (under orders!)
    Glad to see you journos have got your spine back. I have to say, my experience (as a Whitehall PR) was that it was far too easy to rope a journalist into an exclusive Ministerial interview despite the hideously unsubtle agenda surrounding it.

    It takes two to tango.

    MorrisOx said...

    Yeah, but I don't want to tango, Rich.

    Far more profit in those quiet, conspiratorial chinwags over a beer with well-placed backbenchers and the occasional hacked-off Junior.

    That or the sheer comedy of an 'off-the-record' with Ed Balls.

    Richard Bailey said...

    When I was at the DCA, I used to handle media relations for his delectable wife, Yvette.

    Paul Linford said...

    I never got to know her really. Is she as delectable as she seems?

    Richard Bailey said...

    I think so!
    Everyone was pretty terrified of her in the press office but I've met her type before and got on very well.
    She was quite intimidating and was very demanding.
    I gave her good work and stood up for myself when she took issue with my thoughts. She appreciated that.
    She knew which side of thefence I sat on, so we had some amusing exchanges along the way.
    We are not political bossum buddies!!!