Friday, 2 November 2007

Did Churchill have a spin-doctor?

If I wasn’t such a slow reader I’d have got through Alastair Campbell’s diaries months ago. So, apologies for coming to this a little late, but I’ve just read what Nicholas Soames told him about Churchill and spin doctoring.

As The Times has put it “Alastair Campbell came under great pressure during the Andrew Gilligan, BBC, Dr David Kelly fiasco. Just as he was feeling the strain, he got a supportive call from an unexpected source. Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP, called him and bellowed that the media were “total shits”. He continued: “Do you think my grandfather [Sir Winston Churchill] had a spin doctor? Course he f**king did”

What? Could this mean that all those great sound-bites from the summer of 1940: "Blood, toil, tears and sweat"... "we shall fight on the beaches" ... "this was their finest hour" ... "never was so much owed by so many to so few" were penned by some tame Rottweiler?

Actually, no, I don’t think it could. Following extensive research (I Googled it) I can say with cautious confidence that Churchill was his own spin doctor, and a supremely competent one at that.

John Ramsden’s Man of the Century tells the story of how Winston Churchill, in the last years of his life, carefully crafted his reputation for posterity, and reveals him as “the twentieth century's pioneering, and perhaps most gifted, spin doctor”.

John Sergeant, the BBC’s former chief political correspondent, has said “Who was the greatest spin doctor of the twentieth century? Churchill, I suppose, in Britain. And his greatest achievement in this field? Turning the appalling defeat at Dunkirk, into something else, if not a victory, at least into a kind of deliverance, for the British army. Yes, statesman spin.”

Indeed, the Churchill Centre (Patron one Lady Soames DBE, Sir Winston Churchill's youngest daughter) runs on its website an article by Dr Stephen Bungay, who says: “Oratory was the main instrument he used to maintain his shaky position in parliament, to solidify support in the nation, and to get the war fought. It was a very personal instrument, for he employed no speech writers. Churchill was his own spin doctor.”

Words were Churchill’s metier. He didn’t have to deal with any precursor of Paxman or Humphreys. As Michael Cockerell has pointed out “When BBC TV News began half a century ago, Winston Churchill was prime minister. The Old Man called television a "tuppenny ha'penny Punch and Judy show," and never gave an interview, claiming it had no part to play in the coverage of politics.”

If Churchill was a master of spin, it was spin through language, not media manipulation. But is the orator’s art dead in the modern world of politics?

No. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Clinton had a words man - a great writer - on the team.

When I was writing The word…and how to find it, I learned that Clinton had three equal directors in his presidential election campaign – one responsible for strategy, one for communications, and one for language.

David Kusnet was the director for language. Kusnet was hired, he says, because Clinton had read a book of his called Speaking American. Kusnet meant by this title that it was important to speak directly to the American people in language that they could not merely understand intellectually, but which would connect with them emotionally. Clinton measured the words of his campaign against this goal. He was following Ronald Reagan, another great master of the spoken word.

Kusnet has written : “When Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, he called for ‘a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom’.

“Twelve years later in his acceptance speech, Democrat Bill Clinton invoked a similar set of values – ‘opportunity, responsibility, and community’ - that had been watchwords of his successful presidential campaign.

“Reagan and Clinton spoke in everyday language that evoked moral values, not public policies. They were elected and re-elected against opponents who tended to speak the language of government and politics, not normal life. Not surprisingly, ‘speaking American’ beats speaking Bureaucratese.”

This is not a skill you find all that evident among politicians. How many memorable phrases can you think of from current or recent leaders? We had one or two in the early Blair years – “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” - but I can’t think of any since.

Kusnet had three pieces of advice for Clinton that would stand any writer in good stead. They were:

“First, speak the language of everyday experience. If you're advocating an increase in the minimum wage or opposing a trade agreement that could cost American jobs, explain what it all means for a single mom struggling to support her kids on her paychecks.

“Second, ask yourself what values are at stake - and talk about those values. If you're supporting a living-wage ordinance, then the issue is the moral value the community places on hard work. If the issue is government contracts for companies that bust unions, then the discussion includes individual Americans' rights to free speech and freedom of association. And if it's exorbitant salaries or corrupt practices of corporate executives, then the issue is personal responsibility. Whatever the issue, an appeal to morality is more persuasive than one that's purely technical.

“Third, tell stories, parables really, that evoke people's sense of what is right and wrong.”

Can Brown and Cameron speak English, as Clinton and Reagan spoke American? Or do they need to get some writers onboard?

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