By Assad Bhuglah
The role of a spin doctor is to make unpalatable things look palatable by twisting some facts. He is the one who weaves reports of factual events into palatable stories. The term "spin doctor" is based on the 1950s slang "to spin" which is a shortened version of "to spin a yarn". 'Doctor' comes from the various figurative uses of the verb 'to doctor', ranging from 'patch up' or 'mend' or ‘to falsify'. 'Spin doctor' became a common jargon of US politics in the 1980s. In 1984, Elisabeth Bumiller of The Washington Post picked up the phrase, defining spin doctors as: ”the advisers who talk to reporters and try to put their own spin, or analysis, on the story.” It is a senior political spokesperson employed to promote a favourable interpretation of events to journalists. The quote does not say truthful interpretation; the emphasis is on ‘favourable’. The person knows the truth, but he purposely selects information to create a false interpretation. A spin doctor must not just focus his Public Relations strategy on promotion, but must also know how to make it a face-saving device if the strategy backfires.
The rise of ‘spin doctors’ and news management is one of the most important changes in party politics. There is now a rational-choice model of news management, in which parties supply information on things such as policies and intra-party gossip to journalists in return for favourable coverage. The media, which is faced with fierce competition for its survival, is always on a rush-race for news-story production in which the constant onset of deadlines leaves journalists considerably dependent on official information sources, such as spin doctors. Shadowy spin doctors twisting the will of power and structuring the media debate are a popular character with journalists. Political parties deploy various techniques for maximising positive coverage and counteracting negative coverage. News management is inevitable when parties communicate through news media that make their own choices over which stories to run.
Perhaps, many people would little realize that the positive image of their favourite politician has been ‘doctored’ or phantoms conjured up by the efforts of relatively invisible image-builders or ‘spin doctors’ who know how to manipulate media images, publicise friendly opinion polls and sponsor articles, advise leaders on what to wear, formulate catch-phrases for them, project them always smiling, in short create marketable political commodities. They even go to the extent of advising their employers how to cash political dividends from accident, tragedy or calamity suffered by an individual or a group of citizens.
Spin doctors have been successful – well beyond expectations. They have not only managed to take a pivotal seat in electoral campaigns, they are now also sought after to promote both government policy and lobbying objectives. Manipulation of public opinion by spin doctors is a cunning and sordid plan to deceive the public, delivered by an unelected, politically appointed, taxpayer-funded propagandist.
Spin doctors use two basic types of personal attacks. First, an individual is named and shamed by mere insinuation or allegations. These are usually false or at best taken out of context. This includes guilt by association and taking payment from an agency or belonging to a group the slanderer considers inappropriate. It is an ad hominem (logical and abusive fallacy). In the second instance, individuals are marginalized by identifying them with a group tagged with a pejorative term like ‘terrorist’, ‘pedophile’, ‘mafia’ etc. by implying they are at best outside any norm. Evidently, spin takes various forms. Bad news is released late in the day or on a heavy news day to reduce the negative fallout. Chosen journalists are given information exclusively to secure a positive slant. Unattributable background briefings are used to fabricate allegations or smear people. Exclusive stories are released as part of ''official leaks'' to set the agenda.
Though democracy requires objective information for voters to make informed judgments, very often the public cannot have an intelligent debate about the activities of government or cast a vote based on a sound assessment if it is ill-informed. There is a concern in mature democracies around the world, that the channels of political communication have been so degraded by manipulation and marketing that they have taken on an anti-democratic purpose: the manufacture of consent. Many blame this alleged decline in political discourse on the spin doctors, those advisers who manage and mould the words and images of politicians for consumption by the media and thence by the audience of citizens. The argument goes that the application of spin to political communications is a negative force grinding down the substance of the democracy. Critics argue that the corrosive influence of spin is evident in the rise of misleading political advertising, negative campaigning, and new forms of propaganda. Politicians, with the assistance of their media advisers, do seek to subtly orchestrate the symbolic spectacle of politics, set the terms of political debate and rapidly adjust their policies to any changes in public sentiment. Concerns are justified when political communication becomes nothing but spin, when spin is used systematically to bury the truth, when one side’s spin so dominates the media that it effectively becomes propaganda, and when the spin-doctors political roles intersect with their commercial activities.
The age of the spin doctor is not over; it has become a necessary evil in modern politics. It has become hard to even imagine any ambitious leader, or political party, not making use of the services spin doctors. Consultants in political communication can no doubt be seen as part of the long tradition of princely counsellors, and in line with the present professionalization of politics, division of political work, and replacement of militants by mercenaries. The rule of thumb for spin-doctors has always been to remain invisible. They are the most shadowy figures in government. If ever they are to be accepted as necessary evila, the activities of spin doctors must not go unfettered and unchecked and shrouded by opacity. Spin doctors must be held accountable. A clearly worded code that defines and curbs their activities would be a starting point.