The “black arts” of political communication have been around for as long as politics itself. Certainly such habits as off-the-record briefings, leaks and “trailing” controversial policies have been features even during this, supposedly apolitical, coronavirus crisis, but they’re nothing new. In the modern democratic era, coinciding as it did with the rise of mass-circulation newspapers in the latter decades of the 19th century, politicians have always attempted to manipulate the media, and the media has often been happy to act as a “sewer pipe” for the political classes. The parliamentary press gallery, the “lobby” or the “club” of political reporters was established in 1884 and the first leak, an unpublished draft of a bill, was delivered to a newspaper called The Standard shortly after. Its accuracy was swiftly denied.
What is more novel in the past few weeks is how unsatisfactory and self-defeating the current practitioners of the dark arts in and around government been. They did, after all, enjoy a formidable reputation based on the successful Leave campaign in 2016, and last December’s general election victory, which seems another world now.
Perhaps it is simply that a pandemic is not an ideal environment for spin. Things are too serious and frightening for the usual political fun and games. In mid-March, for example, and before the lockdown was announced, well-sourced reports suggested that everyone over the age of 70 (not just the frailest) was to be “shielded” in a “wartime-style mobilisation”, and not allowed out at all. Predictably this caused a good deal of distress and was dropped, but it seems like a pointlessly extreme idea in the first place.
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