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Political spin (and lost in Perugia)

Everyone has a slightly different view of what constitutes a “conference” or a “festival”, as the Perugia Journalism Festival describes itself. Some have simultaneous sessions, others do sessions one at a time. Sometimes there’s the expectation that, as a speaker, you’re expected to participate in every session. Other times, your job is to swoop in, give a talk, then get out of the way. Figuring out just what sort of conference you’re at is often one of the more challenging tasks I encounter as a speaker. (Just think about showing up with a prepared talk, with slides, and finding yourself at an “unconference”. Or coming on stage in jeans and a t-shirt alongside co-panelists wearing suits. Both are errors I’ve made.)

So I’m still trying to figure out the structure of the Perugia Journalism Festival and what’s expected of me. On the one hand, the totality of my involvement in the program is participation in a panel on citizen media on Saturday. On the other hand, the organizers have flown me in, put me up at a ludicriously nice hotel and plied me with food and wine. This generates a certain sense of obligation. And so I’ve gladly said yes to a number of requests for interviews, including a slightly surreal one this morning, where I took questions from a panel of Italian high school students. And I made my best faith effort to attend conference sessions today… since I’m going to run off to Assissi with Rachel tomorrow and look at churches.

Alas, while most of the conference venues are in the adorable, ancient postage-stamp sized old city of Perugia, most of today’s sessions are in the Congress Center near the downtown. And nobody, I mean nobody, seems to know where it is. After being told by several people at the hotel and the conference information center that I couldn’t get there by “mini-metro”, I made the error of not taking a taxi, and taking a bus that was supposed to pass by the center.

Which is how I found myself at a hospital deep in the suburbs of Perugia, asking in broken Italian for directions to a place no one knew how to find. And why I showed up almost an hour late for a panel discussion involving former British press secretary Alastair Campbell, internationally famous reporter Carl Bernstein, and a trio of top Italian journalists.

The conversation that I caught centered on Campbell, Bernstein and Marcello Foa, a columnist for Il Giornale. Foa is deeply concerned about the influence of political spin-doctors on journalism. He argues that “the best spin doctors, like Alastair Campbell, know how journalists think and how to spin to them.” Journalists, on the other hand, tend not to understand the art of spin doctoring. In the past, he argues, western societies prided themselves on being able to trust what the government said – this, at least, was a place where we differed from the former Soviet Union. But in recent years, in the US and UK, political discourse has moved away from that culture we admired, and political communication has taken on too large a role.

Foa specifically worries about the role of PR firms, noting that some of the most outrageous misinformation comes not from government employees, but from PR firms hired to do it. He features two stories which “may or may not involve” a PR firm the Rendon Group, which he states has had major involvement with the US government since 1989. He traces the staged toppling of the Saddam Hussein state to Rendon, as well as the Jessica Lynch “capture” and “rescue” by Marines. (“I’ve seen a lot of people protesting against dictators. When you try to pull down a statue, you try to pull down ones that are your size. You don’t try to pull one down that’s ten meters tall.”) His concern, ultimately – “Without criticism by the press, democracy becomes an empty entity.”

Campbell, who is often celebrated as one of the most effective spin-doctors in history, disagrees with Foa on some major points. Specifically, he refuses to apologize for “professionalizing” Tony Blair’s relationship with the media. He reminds us that he was part of the press corps, a journalist with the Daily Mirror, and was able to watch “the shambles that was the previous government.” He certainly wasn’t going to adopt that shambolic approach to media relations.

Sharing the stage with Carl Bernstein, he speculates that Woodward and Berstein’s Watergate reporting created a sea change in political reporting. “It’s created a view that everything in politics must be a conspiracy. Any scandal that lasts beyond 24 hours becomes a ‘-gate’,” like Watergate. Governments make mistakes, and it’s not always a conspiracy to keep journalists in the dark. He reminds us that there’s a culture in UK politics that allows MPs to be blackballed for lying. He tells us, “Tony Blair was not lying when he made the case for war” in Iraq – he may have been wrong, but he was not lying.

On the other hand, Campbell believes that the press lies quite often. He tells a story about a Sunday tabloid writing a story that he was going to leave the Blair administration and begin working for Manchester United football club. The story wasn’t true, and Campbell eventually tracked down the reporter. He describes their conversation as such:

Reporter: It’s a good story.
Campbell: It’s not true.
Reporter: Yeah, but it’s a good story.

Asked, at the end of the session, what he’d want to do differently if he re-entered journalism, he tells us that reporters need to stop using the phrase “this story, if true, means”. That phrase shows the blend between news and opinion, and is an excuse to publish false stories. (He also reassures us that he won’t be returning to journalism.)

Carl Bernstein is insistent that the problem with journalism today isn’t spin, but laziness. And by laziness, he refers to the audience, as well as to the journalists. The responsibility of the press, he argues, “is to be judicious, not judicial” – the press reports and allows the public to judge. The most important thing the press does “is subjective – it’s to decide what is news.”

This subjectivity can, and does, challenge older models of journalism. “The bottom line of huge media enterprises is the bottom line”. And therefore, it’s incumbent on journalists. “to make it our business to tenaciously hold onto old standards even in the new media.” The goal has to be to report “best obtainable version of the truth”.

Government spokespeople aren’t as terrible as we make them out to be. “Some of them do lie. But it’s usually because their patron is lying.” He takes Campbell at his word, he tells us, saying “Blair got spun by the Bush machine.”

An accusation that seems to underly much of the conversation is that the press hasn’t had the earth-shattering impact it did with Bernstein and Woodward’s Watergate stories in the last couple of decades. Berstein has clearly heard this before: “It’s not our job to topple presidents”. That isn’t what happened in Watergate, he argues – instead, the system worked. They reported, Congress investigated and eventually, they impeached. That system isn’t working today. “Due to cultural warfare, we’ve got political paralysis and it’s impossible to have meaningful Congressional oversight.” If there was, we might see a very different situation, as he believes there’s enough information available to lead to investigation of the Bush presidency, and perhaps to impeachment. He further notes that Bush was re-elected, despite a great deal of information about his actions leading up to the war – it’s very hard to blame the press for that, he argues. “The idea that we’re blaming a couple of government flaks for the problems of western democracy is ludicrious.”

While the panel is primarily about international politics, Foa discusses the influence of spin doctors in Italy’s upcoming election. This triggers a fierce response from Campbell, who argues that, if Foa’s analysis was true, we’d expect Berlusconi to be favored in the upcoming polls. “After all, the candidate who owns the equivalent of the BBC is going to lose!”

No word on whether Campbell and Foa will square off again after Sunday’s vote.