‘Political spin’, government communications and the undermining of public trust

Ruth Garland

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Questions about the reliability of government information were raised by Leave campaigners throughout the 2016 European Referendum campaign. The government was accused of presenting campaigning material as objective fact; an accusation also made against the New Labour government after 1997, and reiterated recently by the Chilcot Report which called for a clear distinction to be drawn between the political need to argue for particular policy actions, and the requirement on the part of officials to present evidence.
National governments play a dominant role as both a source of news for journalists, and as co-creators of political narratives. The growing suspicion that governments routinely exploit their dominant position as news providers for partisan purposes has led to damaging accusations of political spin and consequent loss of public trust. In this paper I examine cultural and institutional changes in UK government communications since 1997 to ask how and to what extent distinctions between political argument and the presentation of evidence have become blurred. In May 1997 Labour came into power on a landslide, bringing into government the nimble and aggressive 24/7 strategic communications operation that it believed was essential in achieving power. In the process, the rules of engagement between government and the media were transformed, undermining the resilience of the government communications operation which had been in place since WW2, and unleashing a wave of resistance and response which is still being felt today.
This paper presents data from in-depth interviews with former, largely middle-ranking departmental government communicators; a group of civil servants who have worked in close proximity to ministers during a time of rapid media change. Their witness accounts of life in government from the 1960s to the present day are augmented by the voices of journalists and politically-appointed special advisers, together with archival sources dating back to the early 1980s and documentary analysis of parliamentary and government inquiries, and internal and propriety guidance. Is there a consensus about what makes good government communications, and what does government communication in its current form contribute to informed public debate?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPolitical Studies Association Annual Conference 2017
Publication statusUnpublished - Apr 2017


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