The spin doctor is in: Episode 4
The fourth part of a series about spin, the spinners and the spun by Ira Basen for CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition
Originally broadcast February 9, 2007
The "Kelly Affair"
When BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan appeared on BBC radio the morning of May 29, 2003, it set in motion a series of events that represent perhaps the darkest period in the history of the British public broadcaster. By the time the dust settled, Dr. David Kelly, a British weapons expert, had committed suicide, Gilligan had lost his job, several top BBC managers had resigned, the broadcaster had rewritten its policies, tightening editorial control, and had rethought its decision to put a priority on breaking exclusive stories. Most of these changes came about as a result of a public inquiry led by Lord Hutton that was very critical of the BBC's role in the Kelly affair.
To its credit, the BBC has not tried to sweep the controversy under the rug. You can still find lots of information about it on the BBC website, including Gilligan's original radio report, and the stories broadcast by other BBC journalists who were also using Kelly as their anonymous source. It is well worth taking the time to explore.
Nicholas Jones, a former BBC Radio reporter, has written extensively on the Kelly affair and the Hutton inquiry. His critique of the BBC, the Blair government's spin machine, and Lord Hutton is definitely worth reading. His most recent book, Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-Offs, has a chapter on the Kelly affair, or you can read more on anti-spin.com. I did a long interview with Nicholas Jones where he talked about the dangers reporters face when they start making deals with government spin doctors in exchange for "scoops".
The Media and Maher Arar
The most vociferous critic of the role played by the Canadian press in the defaming of Maher Arar is Toronto-based journalist Andrew Mitrovica. His recent article in The Walrus Magazine is a well-argued and well-researched examination into this unfortunate chapter in the history of Canadian journalism.
Paul Rhodes was one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in the controversial and polarizing government of Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Rhodes, a former TV reporter, helped draft the Common Sense Revolution that propelled the Harris Conservatives to victory in 1995. Rhodes was the chief spokesperson for the premier between 1995 and 1997, and few reporters who covered the Ontario legislature at the time remember him fondly. He continued to attract controversy after leaving the premier's office because of several lucrative communications contracts he was awarded, including one with Ontario Hydro for $225,000, and another to develop communications strategies for the Ontario government following the Walkerton water tragedy. He still works in PR, and lives outside Guelph, Ont. He refers to himself as an "old country spin doctor". In my interview with Rhodes we talked about his approach to the art of spin.
Scott Reid was communications director for Paul Martin when Martin was finance minister and then later when he was prime minister. He now runs a speech-writing shop in Ottawa, in partnership with Scott Feschuk, a former Martin speech writer and blogger. Reid was known to be intensely loyal to his boss. In the 2005 CBC TV documentary Minority Report, about the final days of the 2004 campaign, he even teared up while speaking about Martin.
In the 2006 campaign, Reid appeared on a CBC-TV political panel and criticized the Conservatives' child-care plan, saying "you don't give people $25 a day to blow on beer and popcorn." There were two problems with that statement. First, the Conservatives were actually promising $25 a week, not a day, and second, it was a dumb thing to say. He talks about why and shares many other secrets of political communications in our interview.