TERRY PRONE: Buying a ticket to go backstage at the circus of political life

ALISTAIR CAMPBELL, in person, is taller, funnier and infinitely more charming than he is in print.

His book about being Tony Blair’s spindoctor makes Campbell seem a depressed, negative-thinking little guy filled to overflowing with a boiling hatred for almost everybody.

This weekend’s Trim Swift Festival, on the other hand, revealed him to be a tall, good looking guy who not only attracts people to him in droves, but turns them into fawning, flirting, fans, aching for his attention, lusting to hear him use their first name, thrilled to be part of the allusive witty conspiracy he creates around himself.

In a throwaway remark at the festival, he said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do in the next phase of his career. I think he should write a book entitled How to Survive Political Spindoctoring and perhaps provide a university course on the same lines, since – if the numbers of students pitching up on my doorstep to do research for their theses is anything to go by – it’s much trendier to be a political adviser than it is to be a politician.

If he writes the book, I suggest he might include these eight rules for anybody aiming at a political spindoctor.

* Don’t sulk when they don’t take your advice.

It behoves all spindoctors to remember that, because the spindoctor can write and commentate and becomes famous as a result of being the power behind the throne, they have a life after politics. For the politician who just does politics, losing the seat is much more than the ending of a phase in their career. It can be the end of everything. So they’re more cautious. They have to be.

* Don’t feed their paranoia.

Political paranoia is a reasonable response to the realities of political life that flows into relationships with spindoctors in two ways. The first is when the politician wants the spindoctor to find out what makes a particular journalist tick. In other words, to spy on their background to find out if they are secretly a member of, or in the pay of, another political party or the Iona Institute.

Spying is not your job. It’s nobody’s job. It’s a job not worth doing. Deal with all journalists as if they were ethical principled searchers after truth, even if it sometimes makes you look naive. Looking naive is a hell of a lot better than keeping J Edgar Hoover dossiers. If your credibility lies in swapping negative gossip about hacks and conspiracy theories about other politicians, you have no credibility.

The other feeding trough for political paranoia is the leaks issue. Cabinets leak. Government departments leak. Front benches leak. Committees leak. Enemies leak. Friends leak. I once dealt with a politician who wanted eight copies of a sensitive document prepared, each of the eight versions containing a few word changes specific to that version, so when the inevitable leak happened, it would immediately be clear who had done the fell deed. What a waste of time and ingenuity.

* Tell the truth.

Quite apart from the moral imperative, it’s easier to remember.

* Canvass with them.

The best information about political attitudes is available, free of charge, on doorsteps. Walking the constituency will stop you getting notions that you’re a star in a remake of The West Wing.

* Pass on praise.

When someone praises your client, make sure they know about it. Very few people ever praise politicians. Including, in some cases, their leaders. If your client is a political leader, make sure he or she doesn’t take their troops for granted. More than one TD has served for more than 20 years in Dáil Éireann, doing their best at all times and has never been praised by their leader.

* Never believe you’re in control.

Politics is like trying to make dinner out of a live sheep and a dead carrot, using a candle as heat source in a high wind. If you don’t enjoy culinary chaos, don’t get into it.

* Summarise and edit.

Much skit was made of Albert Reynolds because he asked those around him not to hit him with massive documents but to summarise their content on one page. Critics saw him as unwilling to devote time to detail. Nonsense. It was good time management. President Eisenhower did the same. Your client can always ask for the detail behind your summary, but don’t hand them the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the topic. They don’t have the time. Digesting and summarising is what advisers do.

* Don’t tell journalists how to do their job.

Don’t do it. Even if you were a journalist yourself. No – especially if you were a journalist.

Your client may love it if you barrack reporters, columnists and editors for what they say in print. Your client may want you to demand that programme makers send a list of the questions they’re going to ask him or her in an upcoming interview. If the programme makers have any guts, they’ll tell you to get stuffed. And rightly so. Because no interviewer worth a damn knows precisely what questions they’re going to ask in a political (or any other) interview. They know the themes they’ll cover and the outcomes they want: interest, excitement, revelations, news and maybe confession and contrition. But not the questions. If they humour you by sending a list, the dangers to your client are reduced not a whit, because they could still get goosed by a good supplementary.

IN HIS wonderful autobiography, Andre Agassi says: “All journalists want is black and white answers, good and evil, simple plot lines in seven hundred words and then they’re on to the next thing.” Similarly, all broadcast journalists want is a politician who has a point, gets to it, doesn’t say “I’m glad you asked me that question” when he or she clearly isn’t, avoids the big grey words of the lexicon, talks about end results rather than processes and is in studio at the time they said they’d be. Sober and civil.

* Remember you bought a ticket to the circus

Politicians spend their lives meeting people who are outraged, upset, miserable, needy, argumentative and needy. Even back in the boom years, that was the case. Now, it’s a constant factor dogging their every day, whether they’re in government or opposition. Politicians are the most got-at, criticised, nagged and reproached species in captivity. Advisers should offer respite care, not more of the same.

Make a list of the complaints every political adviser has about every politician for whom they work. (Typically, advisers say their client doesn’t manage their diary properly, listens to too many people, spends too little time with their advisors, won’t read documents with proper attention, thinks too much about their constituency.)

Accept all of these whinges as coming with the territory and shut up about them.

Remember what Norris Church Mailer said about marrying Norman Mailer: “I bought a ticket to the circus. Why was I surprised that there were elephants?”


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