The rise of ‘spin doctors’ and news management is one of the most important changes in British party politics. However, this development has been under-theorised. This article fills this gap in the literature by providing a rational-choice model of news management, in which parties supply information on things such as policies and intra-party gossip to journalists in return for favourable coverage. Basing itself on recent research on the media, the article develops a cost–benefit model of news-story production in which the constant onset of deadlines leaves journalists considerably dependent on official information sources, such as spin doctors. Drawing mainly from the experience of New Labour in Britain, the article discusses various techniques for maximising positive coverage and counteracting negative coverage, and shows how they relate to the theoretical framework. It concludes that news management is inevitable when parties communicate through news media that make their own choices over which stories to run.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Data are from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, available at <http://www.barb.co.uk/> (accessed 8 March 2012).
‘Soft news doesn’t bring people to politics by enlightening them; it does so by connecting their world to the human interest and drama in politics’ (Popkin, 2006, p. 333).
In reality, certain types of consumers are more valued than others because of their spending power and greater appeal to advertisers.
See Jones (2000) for examples of New Labour's stage-management of announcements.
The same fate befell David Cameron's spin doctor, Andy Coulson, who was forced to resign because of the increasing revelations about phone-hacking by News of the World journalists during Coulson's time as the paper's editor.
Allern, E., Aylott, N. and Christiansen, F.J. (2007) Social democrats and trade unions in Scandinavia: The decline and persistence of institutional relationships. European Journal of Political Research 46 (5): 607–635.
Bale, T. (2010) The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Barnett, S. and Gaber, I. (2001) Westminster Tales: The Twenty-First Century Crisis in Political Journalism. London and New York: Continuum.
Bartle, J. (2006) The Labour government and the media. In: J. Bartle and A. King (eds.) Britain at the Polls 2005. Washington DC: CQ Press, pp. 124–150.
Blair, T. (2007) Tony Blair's ‘media’ speech: The Prime Minister's Reuter's speech on public life. Political Quarterly 78 (4): 476–480.
Blair, T. (2010) A Journey. London: Hutchinson.
Campbell, A. (2007) The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries. London: Hutchinson.
Chong, D. (1995) Rational choice theory's mysterious rivals. In: J. Friedman (ed.) The Rational Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp. 37–57.
Coleman, J. (1990) Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Curran, J. and Seaton, J. (2003) Power without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting, and New Media in Britain, 6th edn. London: Routledge.
Davies, A. (2002) Public Relations Democracy: Public Relations, Politics and the Mass Media in Britain. Manchester, UK & New York: Manchester University Press.
Davies, N. (2009) Flat Earth News. London: Vintage.
Deacon, D. and Wring, D. (2002) Partisan dealignment and the British press. In: J. Bartle, R. Mortimer and S. Atkinson (eds.) Political Communications: The General Election of 2001. London: Frank Cass, pp. 197–211.
Deacon, D. and Wring, D. (2006) Election unspun? Mediation of the campaign. In: A. Geddes and J. Tonge (eds.) Britain Decides: The UK General Election 2005. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 208–223.
Deacon, D., Wring, D. and Golding, P. (2006) Same campaign, differing agendas: Analysing news media coverage of the 2005 general election. British Politics 1 (2): 222–256.
Denver, D., Hands, G. and MacAllister, I. (2004) The electoral impact of constituency campaigning in Britain, 1992–2001. Political Studies 52 (4): 289–306.
Dowding, K. (2006) The economic approach to the study of British Politics. British Politics 1 (1): 26–43.
Downs, A. (1957) An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.
Fogarty, B.J. (2009) A simple model of legislator and news media interaction. Journal of Theoretical Politics 21 (1): 5–24.
Franklin, B. (1994) Packaging Politics: Political Communications in Britain's Media Democracy. London: Edward Arnold.
Franklin, B. (2003) ‘A good day to bury bad news?’: Journalists, sources and the packaging of politics. In: S. Cottle (ed.) News, Public Relations and Power. London: Sage Publications, pp. 45–61.
Franklin, B. (2004) A damascene conversion? New labour and the media. In: S. Ludlam and M. Smith (eds.) Governing as New Labour: Policy and Politics under Blair. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, pp. 88–105.
Gaber, I. (2004) Alastair Campbell, exit stage left: Do the ‘Phillis’ recommendations represent a new chapter in political communications or is it ‘business as usual’? Journal of Public Affairs 4 (4): 365–373.
Gaber, I. (2006) ‘Dislocated and distracted’: Media, parties and the voters in the 2005 general election campaign. British Politics 1 (3): 344–366.
Gaber, I. (2009) The slow death of the Westminster lobby: Collateral damage from the MPs’ Expenses Scandal. British Politics 4 (4): 478–497.
Galtung, J. and Ruge, M. (1965) The structure of foreign news: The presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus crises in four Norwegian newspapers. Journal of International Peace Research 2 (1): 64–91.
Gould, P. (1999) The Unfinished Revolution: How the Modernisers Saved the Labour Party. London: Abacas.
Hamilton, J. (2004) All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Harcup, T. and O'Neill, D. (2001) What is news? Galtung and Ruge revisited. Journalism Studies 2 (2): 261–280.
Heffernan, R. (1999) Media management: Labour's political communications strategy. In: G. Taylor (ed.) The Impact of New Labour. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, pp. 50–67.
Heffernan, R. (2006) The Prime Minister and the news media: Political communication as a leadership resource. Parliamentary Affairs 59 (4): 582–598.
Heffernan, R. and Stanyer, J. (1997) The enhancement of leadership power: Labour party and the impact of political communications. In: C. Pattie, D. Denver, J. Fisher and S. Ludlam (eds.) British Elections and Parties Review, Vol. 7, London: Frank Cass, pp. 168–184.
Jones, N. (2000) Sultans of Spin: The Media and the New Labour Government. London: Orion.
Jones, N. (2002) The Control Freaks: How New Labour Gets its Own Way. London: Politico's.
Katz, R.S. and Mair, P. (1995) Changing models of party organization and party democracy: The emergence of the cartel party. Party Politics 1 (1): 5–28.
Kuhn, R. (2002) The first Blair government and political journalism. In: R. Kuhn and E. Neveu (eds.) Political Journalism: New Challenges, New Practices. London and New York: Routledge/ECPR, pp. 47–68.
Kuhn, R. (2003) The media and politics. In: P. Dunleavy, A. Gamble, R. Heffernan and G. Peele (eds.) Developments in British Politics, Vol. 7, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 140–160.
Kuhn, R. (2007) Politics and the Media in Britain. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lloyd, J. (2004) What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. London: Constable.
Mandelson, P. (2010) The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour. London: Harper Press.
McNair, B. (1999) An Introduction to Political Communication, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
Meyer, T. (2002) Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Politics. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Moloney, K. (2001) The rise and fall of spin: Changes of fashion in the presentation of UK Politics. Journal of Public Affairs 1 (2): 124–135.
Norris, P. (1998) The battle for the campaign agenda. In: A. King (ed.) New Labour Triumphs: Britain at the Polls. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, pp. 113–144.
Norris, P. (2000) A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Norris, P. (2006) Did the media matter? Agenda-setting, persuasion and mobilization effects in the British general election campaign. British Politics 1 (2): 195–221.
Oborne, P. and Walters, S. (2004) Alastair Campbell. London: Aurum.
Olasky, M. (1987) Corporate Public Relations – A New Historical Perspective. Hillsdate, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Paxman, J. (2007) Never mind the scandals: What's it all for? The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, 24 August, http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Media/documents/2007/08/24/MacTaggartLecture.pdf, accessed 14 October 2011.
Phillis, B. (2004) An Independent Review of Government Communications. London: The Stationary Office.
Popkin, S. (2006) Changing media, changing politics. Perspectives on Politics 4 (2): 327–341.
Price, L. (2006) The Spin Doctor's Diary: Inside Number 10 with New Labour. London: Hodder.
Quinn, T. (2004) Modernising the Labour Party: Organisational Change Since 1983. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Quinn, T. (2005) Leasehold or freehold? Leader-eviction rules in the British Conservative and Labour parties. Political Studies 53 (4): 793–815.
Quinn, T. (2010) New Labour and the trade unions in Britain. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties 20 (3): 357–380.
Quinn, T. (2012) Electing and Ejecting Party Leaders in Britain. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rawnsley, A. (2010) The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour. London: Penguin/Viking.
Richards, P. (2005) Be Your Own Spin Doctor: A Practical Guide to Using the Media. London: Politico's.
Sanders, K. (2009) Communicating Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Savigny, H. and Temple, M. (2010) Political marketing models: The curious case of the dog that doesn’t bark. Political Studies 58 (5): 1049–1064.
Scammell, M. (1999) Political marketing: Lessons for political science. Political Studies 47 (4): 718–739.
Scammell, M. (2002) New media, new politics. In: P. Dunleavy, A. Gamble, R. Heffernan, I. Holliday and G. Peele (eds.) Developments in British Politics, Vol. 6, Revised edn. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, pp. 169–184.
Scammell, M. and Beckett, C. (2010) Labour no more: The press. In: D. Kavanagh and P. Cowley (eds.) The British General Election of 2010. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 280–305.
Seldon, A., Snowdon, P. and Collings, D. (2008) Blair Unbound. London: Pocket Books.
Seyd, P. and Whiteley, P. (1992) Labour's Grass Roots: The Politics of Party Membership. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seymour-Ure, C. (1996) The British Press and Broadcasting Since 1945, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
Street, J. (2001) Mass Media, Politics and Democracy. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Strøm, K. (1990) A behavioral theory of competitive political parties. American Journal of Political Science 34 (2): 565–598.
Temple, M. (2006) Dumbing down is good for you. British Politics 1 (2): 257–273.
van Heerde-Hudson, J. (2011) The Americanization of British party advertising? Negativity in party election broadcasts, 1964–2005. British Politics 6 (1): 52–77.
Ware, A. (1992) Activist-leader relations and the structure of political parties. British Journal of Political Science 22 (1): 71–92.
Whiteley, P. (2009) Where have all the members gone: The dynamics of party membership in Britain. Parliamentary Affairs 62 (2): 242–257.
Wring, D. (2006) The news media and the public relations state. In: P. Dunleavy, R. Heffernan, P. Cowley and C. Hay (eds.) Developments in British Politics, Vol. 8, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 231–250.
Wring, D. and Deacon, D. (2010) Patterns of press partisanship in the 2010 general election. British Politics 5 (4): 436–454.
I thank Nick Allen (Royal Holloway, University of London) and three anonymous British Politics referees for their valuable comments on earlier versions of this article.
About this article
Cite this article
Quinn, T. Spin doctors and political news management: A rational-choice ‘exchange’ analysis. Br Polit 7, 272–300 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1057/bp.2012.6
- political communication
- news management
- political parties
- spin doctors
- New Labour
- rational-choice theory