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Comment: Spin doctor's firing may aid Blair
( 2003-09-02 09:42) (Xinhua)

Britain's government should see a recovery in the opinion polls with the departure of communications chief Alastair Campbell, but many analysts believe reports of the death of spin have been greatly exaggerated.

The numbers from pollsters, the Labour party conference and a safe-seat, by-election will be closely watched as indicators of whether Prime Minister Tony Blair is able to shrug off damage to the party's reputation for "spinning" - manipulating news to its own advantage.

"Campbell's departure may well improve the government's prospects," said Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University.

"A quieter, more restrained team could have a positive effect on the way the public sees it," he said.

The obsession with "spinning" news coverage has become almost as damaging a tag to Blair as accusations of sleaze were to his Conservative predecessors, many analysts are saying.

"People had ceased to believe claims by the government even when they were true," said Bogdanor.

In particular, public unease had been sharply increased by a widespread feeling that the case for going to war in Iraq was unproven and the evidence for it flimsy at best.

Claims that the government "sexed up" the arguments for war crystallized that sentiment and led to one opinion poll this week putting the opposition Conservatives two points ahead of Blair's Labour government.

Because of the extent of Campbell's powers - including the right to give orders to senior civil servants - and his closeness to Blair, he was seen as the epitome of Labour's addiction to presentation over substance.

Some analysts believe that the culture of spin has become so deeply embedded in the Labour leadership that the overhaul of Downing Street's media operation next month will be little more than smoke and mirrors.

"The problem isn't Alastair Campbell," said veteran Labour ex-parliamentarian Tony Benn. "The problem has been that the prime minister behaves like a king."

Tim Bell, media adviser to former Conservative Premier Margaret Thatcher, agreed.

"I don't think the government can stop what it's doing - it's addicted to spinning and it will go on spinning whether the chief spin doctor is there or not," he told Sky News.

The power of spin was indelibly impressed on Britons by the way Blair used relentlessly positive messages to help make the left-wing Labour party electable after 18 years in opposition.

Jamie Cowling, research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, said that spin doctors, as political press spokesmen are increasingly called in Britain, have become an essential part of government.

"They are not going to go away whoever is in power," he said.

Political attention is concentrated for the moment on the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of weapons expert David Kelly after he became embroiled in the row over whether Campbell exaggerated the case for war in Iraq.

Analysts generally feel Blair has survived the credibility test so far, but emotional evidence at the inquiry next week from Kelly's widow could still cause considerable damage to the government.

Further out, analysts will be watching how Labour fares at a by-election in the safe London seat of Brent on September 18.

Britain's other main opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, have already set out their stall very visibly on the area's multi-ethnic streets and will be hoping national woes reflect badly on the local Labour candidate.

Ten days later, Labour's annual conference starts in the genteel southern resort of Bournemouth.

A big task there, analysts believe, will be for the new press team to shift the spotlight away from themselves and back on to the core policy issues like transport and health.

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