Reading SpinWatch and its spin-offs you might get the idea that it was critical of the New Labour project. But that was not always the case. In the 1990s, as New Labour was getting its act together, the people who would form SpinWatch – the Glasgow Media group – played their own bit part.
The things that the SpinWatchers and the New Labour team worked together on were social order policies at home, and so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ abroad.
As shadow home secretary Tony Blair called on Home Office policy wonks to help him draw up a distinctive strategy for dealing with public perceptions of crime, headlined ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Blair’s preference was for ‘non-custodial’ ways of coping with the perceived problem of public order.
Sharing Blair’s hysterical fears of public disorder, Glasgow Media Group head, and David Miller’s boss, Greg Philo offered his services to the New Labour team. Philo’s proposed ‘anti-violence education’ which he discussed with the Scottish Office and and collaborated with ‘the government’s junior education minister about his work’. As Sara Bragg wrote in the collection Ill Effects ‘Philo may have an independent stake in bringing the issues to the fore, since it will help advance’ his ‘status, power, and material resources’ (Sara Bragg, ‘Media Regulation, Education and the “Problem” of Media Violence’, Ill Effects 2nd Edition, p 87, 98).
Already, David Miller had tried to pitch for business promoting ‘safer sex’ education to take advantage of the sharp rise in Department of Health funding during the AIDS panic. ‘We wanted to know how health information could be conveyed more effectively’, Miller’s co-researcher Jenny Kitzinger flannelled (Message Received, p 7).
Having broken ranks from those they thought of as their effete southern Media Studies rivals, the Glasgow Group thought they were entitled to some payback.
Hawking social order programmes to the Scottish Office was only the beginning of the Glasgow Media Group’s pitch for the New Labour shilling. After all, there was their special expertise into the public reception of British imperialism abroad.
The Glasgow Media group pitched for work selling Britain abroad. Around the same time ad-man Wally Olins was ‘re-branding Britain’ – concluding that the country had an image problem of its imperialist past. So the Glasgow Media Group offered its services selling the British government’s Department for Overseas Development, DFID.
SpinWatch editor David Miller’s wife Emma did the report, based on research of television news coverage of the developing world. The weight of Emma Miller’s report was that broadcasters ought to do more to educate viewers about the wider world, and, by implication, Britain’s role in it. The report applauded some news programmes [that] did make an effort to produce longer and more contextual special reports’ like ‘Newsnight’s special report on Education in Tanzania’ (where DFID was directing British aid money). On the other hand, ‘other news programmes offered a more limited reporting of the developing world’ chided Miller (Viewing the World: a study of British television coverage of developing countries, DFID, July, 2000, p 23).
Miller condemned broadcasters, too, for failing to properly motivate British policy in Rwanda with items that give ‘little more than a basic allusion to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and in most cases, the economic or political structure that yielded the violence is not discussed’ (Viewing the World, p 50). British Prime Minister Tony Blair – like Emma Miller – was a keen champion of the new Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, who was using ‘the genocide’ to vilify opponents of his government.
Promoting social regulation of young hooligans at home, and of Britain’s humanitarian mission abroad fitted well with New Labour’s goals. But the Glasgow Group were competing in a buyer’s market – up against better appointed think tanks like Demos and Mark Leonard’s Foreign Policy Centre (later, these more successful rivals would be attacked in a spectacular instance of sour grapes).
Surer success came by playing to the group’s strengths, notably their Scottish and university base – but that meant turning away from media analysis. SpinWatchers David Miller and William Dinan gouged cash from research grants from the Economic and Social Research Council into Scotland’s post-devolution political culture. Dinan cadged a grant to look into ‘The Scottish Parliament and Political Communication’. Miller set up his private company (the ironically titled) Public Interest Investigations to plunder another ESRC grant, of nearly a quarter of a million, to look into Corporate Public Relations.
David Miller uses the ESRC and other grant money stashed in his own private company to reward some of the volunteers who enter data onto the SpinProfiles website: ‘do check with David first though as he is in charge of paying people’ (Claire Robinson, Deleted from Miriam Rose’s user profile talk, 19 June 2010).
Dinan, too, tried his hand at turning public goods into private benefits working as a consultant for ‘various public bodies, including BBC Scotland, the Scottish Parliament and the Water Customer Consultation Panel’ (Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy, 2007, p 306). At Strathclyde University Emma Miller won funding ‘from the Joint Improvement Team of the Scottish Government to develop and implement an outcomes approach to practice in community care’ as well as ‘from the National Carers Organisations’.
Later, the SpinWatchers would bite the New Labour hand that fed them – but only after the Blair government’s popularity had waned.