Anticipating the Age of 'Political Spin'? An historical analysis of 1980s government communications

Ruth Garland

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Public relations scholarship draws on a range of disciplines, just as PR practice consists of a diversity of professional identities, purposes and ideologies. Drawing on techniques widely used by L’Etang (L'Etang, 2009), this chapter considers the generative power of history in influencing the professional identities and purposes of media relations specialists within central governing bureaucracies, taking a UK perspective. As public servants, government press officers operate within a self-regulating system of ethical codes and proprieties, but controversies over the 2003 Iraq War, and the 2016 EU referendum campaign (Butler, 2004; Chilcot, 2016; Halligan, 2016; Herring & Robinson, 2014; Williams, 2010) raised serious concerns among scholars and commentators that government information was becoming increasingly partisan and untrustworthy, leaving the public under-served and disillusioned (Blumler & Coleman, 2010, 2015; Foster, 2005; Hennessy, 1999; Sixsmith, 2007; Yeung, 2006). As the Trump experiment has shown, public distrust in governing and media elites is widespread, and one response has been the rise of populism and highly personalised forms of direct communication through social media. This study examines the rise of information PR after WW2, with a focus on the development of a more overtly persuasive form of political communication during the 1990s that came to be known as ‘political spin’, as seen through the eyes of government witnesses. Should government communicators bear some responsibility for the consistent decline in public trust in recent decades in what governments say (Whiteley et al., 2016)? Using data from in-depth interviews with various actors concerned with managing UK government news, and drawing on documentary and archival evidence, this chapter argues that the bureaucratic culture that underpins liberal democracy has struggled to adapt to the transformation of the media environment (‘mediatization’), or to resist the drive by politicians to manage and exploit communication power. The study finds that a government news operation that lacks confidence and unity is unable to resist self-advantaging communication that is potentially damaging to public trust (Gregory, 2012). To manage risk, and coordinate news narratives, governing politicians increasingly rely on media intermediaries who are personally loyal to them, and seek informal accountability through the media over formal kinds of public accountability. Propriety codes and governance structures have been tweaked to favour increased politicization, and storytelling replaces information provision. Officials have a role to play in representing the public interest as part of the governing process, but cannot be expected to do this on their own and without a clear and formal system of public accountability
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPublic Relations, Society and the Generative Power of History
EditorsIan Somerville, Lee Edwards, Oyvind Ihlen
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9781138317109
Publication statusPublished - 17 Sept 2019


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