By Jacob Middleton
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A Century of Spin

This article is over 14 years, 2 months old
David Miller and William Dinan, Pluto Press, £14.99
Issue 323

David Miller and William Dinan have written a short, punchy book on how public relations have come to dominate public life, even to the extent where a would-be prime minister, David Cameron, himself spent much of the 1990s as a professional spin doctor. But the links go deeper.

Behind Cameron lurks Steve Hilton, a former ad executive at Saatchi and Saatchi. Hilton was brought in by Cameron shortly after he was elected to the leadership of the Tory party. He is, Miller and Dinan suggest, behind much of Cameron’s apparent effort to “reposition” himself as a caring, modern, socially minded sort of Tory.

Of course, in much the same way as Cameron’s camera-friendly pedalling covered up the fact that his suit, shoes and briefcase were following him in a gas-guzzling limo, Cameron’s fleece-clad posturing hides a vicious pack of neoconservative wolves.

Surrounding this clique of the hard right is an assortment of PR men, lobbyists, and other professional smokescreeners. The concerted efforts of this media-savvy crowd have turned ruthless Old Etonian Cameron, once described by no less than the Sun‘s business editor as a “poisonous, slippery individual”, into the apparently well-rounded, well-meaning figure we see today.

Miller and Dinan’s thesis, however, is that spin and good PR are about more than just presentation and fluff. They contend that PR itself, and especially corporate PR, has had a profound impact on the direction of politics over the last century. It is growing steadily in influence and power, and slowly strangling the life out of what limited democracy we enjoy.

They point to the steady destruction of old Labour and Labour party democracy, and its effective replacement by a highly professionalised, but wholly unaccountable, party machine. They trace PR’s roots back to its origins, around the First World War, as what was bluntly called “corporate propaganda” – a transfer of fast-developing propaganda techniques into the business realm.

Miller and Dinan claim that corporate public relations are always there, unremarked, at any major historical event. Though an interesting and provocative way to view the history of the 20th century, in the end it is not wholly persuasive.

Their account of New Labour’s rise, for example, focuses essentially on the machinations of a few well-placed people at the top of the party. It does not take account of the shattering defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85, or the downturn in class struggle it nearly overcame. It was the defeat of the workers’ movements of the 1970s, above all else, and the crippling of the trade unions that paved the way for New Labour. That context determined New Labour’s existence. Without it, Miller and Dinan’s narrative is unfortunately lopsided.

Nonetheless they have presented an informative alternative history of a neglected topic. If spin and PR do not determine our lives quite as much as the authors imply, propaganda is hugely important to modern capitalism and this book will repay careful reading.

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