A World Without Spin?

Strathclyde University Professor David Miller’s SpinWatch dedicates itself to ridding the world of ‘spin’.

Mandeville's 'Fable of the Bees' first showed that a life without interests is no life at all

Is ‘spin’ lying? If so, like Plato’s Republic, a world without spin would have to be ruled by a ‘philosopher king’ who would ‘never willingly tolerate an untruth, but hate it as he loves truth’ (The Republic, Penguin, 1978, p 278). Just as SpinWatch editor David Miller imagines a Scottish assembly and a Westminster Parliament untainted by ‘interests’, so Plato thinks that the ‘guardians’ of the city ‘must be told that they have no need of moral and material gold and sliver, because they have in their hearts the heavenly gold and silver given them by the gods’ (Ibid., p 184).

Not surprisingly, Plato took a dim view of democracy, ‘a splendid garlanded procession of insolence, license, extravagance, and shamelessness’: ‘They praise them all extravagantly and call insolence good breeding, license liberty, extravagance generosity, and shamelessness courage’. (Ibid., 380). Our comic Plato, the editor of SpinWatch, lacks the honesty to say that he loathes democracy for the same reasons – that it rests on the powers of persuasion and argument, spin, in fact.

Maybe lying is just too broad a definition of Spin. Does Miller not have a point that the Public Relations (PR) industry plays a greater role today?

In A Century of Spin Miller and William Dinan record the growth of the PR industry, but their command of the evidence is poor. First they note the growth of PR firms from 46 to 2230 between 1967 and 1994. But the increase might represent the break up of larger firms or the outsourcing of PR functions. They give a better indication by looking at the growing numbers working in PR: 3318 in 1986, 6578 in 1998, 7605 in 2005.

That looks like a big shift. But thought of as a share of the workforce it is less impressive – in fact it is a growth from 0.022 per cent of the UK workforce, to 0.046. A growth, but overall, insignificant. In the preface to A Century of Spin, Miller and Dinan ‘fessed up: ‘we struggled with how best to present and explain all of this and we grappled with what it all meant’ (p 11). You don’t say?

The fear of hidden financial interests has long been a mainstay of reactionary thinking

Miller and Dinan looked at the growth of PR in Scotland, too. In Open Scotland they discovered a ‘dramatic growth of press officers in Scottish governmental bodies over the past thirty years’, from 15 in 1970 to a grand total of 81 in 2000 (p 137). Miller and Dinan asked business executives what PR their companies were planning for the new Scottish Parliament. But the answer they found was that just two per cent had contracted PR firms, while 54 per cent had done ‘nothing’ – ‘the authors were surprised by the results of their survey given the anticipated growth in Scottish corporate communications’ (Open Scotland, p 199 – around the same time, of course, Miller and Dinan’s own sector, Higher Education, has massively expanded ).

Still, no need to let facts get in the way of a good story – or a hysterical panic. Miller and Dinan endow ‘Spin’ with magical powers over the people:

Corporate spin is an important means by which corporate power is defended and extended … the management of perceptions, beliefs and ultimately behaviours … the cutting edge of corporate power in its campaign to stifle democracy (Thinker Faker, Spinner, Spy, 2007, pp 1, 3, 18)

 Their charge that Spin threatens democracy is all the more comic since their prescription is to give unelected commissioners power over elected parliaments. Still, anyone who argues with the SpinWatch case had better watch out. The belief that Spin is not as important as Miller and Dinan say is itself an example of spin:

This misrecognition is no accident. It is part of the project of corporate spin and the public relations industry to deny, dissemble and disguise their own work. Thinker, Faker… p 1

 There is, of course, quite a literature on the growth of business consultancies – but those remain a closed book to Miller and Dinan. Worse, the scholarly view is that such consultancies are not a sign of powerful corporations, but rather that they are predatory upon insecure executives and public sector managers.

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