“Blair’s team centralized control of the entire government’s communications agenda in the Prime Minister’s office and transformed and ‘professionalised’ the entire government information service. This involved sweeping away the notion of Civil Service impartiality and effectively ‘politicising’ all government communication.”
Thus wrote Eric Louw in The Media and Political Process published in 2010.
How much of an exaggeration is Malcolm Tucker? Does the BBC comedy, The Thick of It, really say anything about how government communications actually works?
Is it true, as many commentators and academics claim, that the civil service is becoming increasingly politicised, and that party political campaigning has reached into the heart of supposedly impartial government communications?
Like lots of people in politics and PR, I enjoyed Alastair Campbell’s diaries, but when I re-read them as part of my research for the CIPR Diploma in Public Affairs, his entry for 3 May 1997, just two days after the election, really caught my eye.
He records that, at his first meeting with the Civil Service Heads of Information (whose boss he now was), their demeanour was “terrified.” Within a year, half the Heads and Deputy Heads had been replaced. Why was this?
My research project, Measuring “spin” in Government communications, set out to analyse the text of government press releases to see whether they contained any empirical evidence of “spin”.
If I managed to do this, it should then be possible to make a comparison over time and establish whether, as Eric Louw and other academics and commentators have claimed, that government communications has, indeed, become increasingly politicised.
Press releases as a measure of propaganda
Why press releases? Because they are accessible, official, consistent public pronouncements which while giving the appearance of neutrality, provide an insight into the mindset of the government in general, and its ministers in particular. They are hidden from the public yet provide a window into the political machine.
While reading around the subject for my dissertation, I had some access to academic articles but not to an academic library, so it was down to chance that I discovered a piece of recent content analysis carried out on the broadcasts of the right-wing Fox News commentator, Bill O’Reilly. The research team, Mike Conway M, Maria Grabe and Kevin Grieves*, successfully used techniques developed in the US during the 1930s by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) to quantify the presence of seven common features of propaganda. These had originally been used by the IPA to measure anti-Semitic and fascist language in text during the lead up to the Second World War.
I used most of these seven propaganda features, and a couple of my own, to create a grid which I then completed for every press release issued by one government department during two three month periods – just after the election in May-July 2010, and about a year later in March-May 2011. Like Conway et al, I used IPA notions such as “plain folks” (the use of populist language which, for us, is essentially, tabloid language) and “glittering generalities”(where you make unsubstantiated positive statements), and combined them with other identifiers within the 117 press releases that I analysed, which I thought contributed towards politicisation – for example, personalising issues in the name of the Minister, and depicting the Minister as a hero.
Each press release was given a propaganda score.
I can’t make major academic claims for the results because, brief as it was, this study could never be anything more than a pilot, but it is striking how prevalent these propaganda features were in the two samples. Most press releases issued during both sample periods contained some propaganda element (86% and 77% respectively).
Virtually all press releases were personalised to the minister, with many being strongly personalised: 94% of all press releases in 2010 and 2011 were identified with a particular Minister, while 55% in the 2010 sample, and 41% in 2011, used the minister’s name in the headline. The most commonly used propaganda device was “plain folks”, which appeared in the body text of half or more of all press releases.
You’d expect emotive language in a minister’s quotation, but even in the body text I found such phrases as “stand on their own two feet”, “front runners”, “going for growth”, “do their bit”, “bonanza”, “bonkers”, “back in the driving seat”, “shot in the arm”, “go compare,” “deadly dangers” and “giving a lifeline”.
Many PR professionals can plead guilty to using quasi-tabloid language in an attempt to appeal to journalists and increase the likelihood of coverage, but is this acceptable in official government communications? To paraphrase Eric Loew, could government press releases be accused of mobilising demagoguery – a form of storytelling which uses “populist language” to “incite passions and prejudices”? I think this is worth looking into in more depth.
In local government, all communications are advised to abide by the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity (circular 01/2011) which requires that publicity by local authorities should be “objective” and “even-handed”. In principle, this seems reasonable and fair: the public needs to know when the information they are being presented with is policy information or political information. Shouldn’t this now apply to national government as well?
*Conway M et al. “Villains, victims and the virtuous in Bill O’Reilly’s ‘no-spin’ zone. Revisiting world war propaganda techniques.” Journalism Studies. 8(2): 197-223.