‘Spin doctors’, public relations gurus in today’s political world – an uneasy with online news


Uneasy with the age of spin

The old guard feel uncomfortable with the instant availability of online news and views that might be critical of them or their allies.

UMNO is probably one of the largest political parties in the world relative to the country’s population – with three million members in a country of around 30 million, its members account for almost 10% of the population.

So it came as a surprise that the party’s secretary-general announced that media would not be invited to cover this year’s party general assembly unless they “behaved” themselves.

He has since rescinded this order, but the permanent gripe that the Umno establishment has against some online news portals is that the portals allegedly like to “spin” stories and statements made by senior party-members and ministers, much to the chagrin of the nation’s top leaders.

So what is “spin”?

Spin is a weapon generally employed on a daily basis by politicians, opinion-makers and large corporations with the help of public relations gurus (“spin doctors”) who put out the desired image or message in such a way that the client will be favourably received by the public.

Edward Bernays is called the “father of public relations” for his success at presenting smoking and drinking as acceptable social behaviour in the early part of the 20th century, and he was in fact a spin doctor par excellence who openly talked of manipulating the public mind.

Spin doctoring is readily apparent in the United States political scene where debates are held by competing presidential candidates: both sides will claim victory and their spin doctors will go full throttle to selectively present the respective candidate’s winning points.

It’s also spin if the desired result of the exercise is to paint a negative picture of one’s target; either way, spin is usually associated with deceptive or manipulative tactics, but this is not always the case.

Spin can be disingenuous but not necessarily false: selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one’s position is spin, and it is the same as putting large photographs of certain leaders on the front pages of national newspapers to project a positive image.

Everyone engages in spin – some crudely – while others do so with more finesse, but everyone is actively spinning these days.

My wife’s constant complaint is that Malaysiakini uses a picture of me showing me in an angry mood, gesticulating about something, which she feels does not truly represent my persona.

Here, Malaysiakini could either be unconcerned about how I look (and why should it be?) or it might want to portray me as an angry man without a cause. If it is the latter, then it’s spin.

That said, spin is less effective in the age of the Internet than it was in the old days when a political party had a monopoly over the media. Back then, it was an arduous task for dissenters to make themselves heard, simply because they had no platform to do so.

Now, in the era of social media, the old order feels uncomfortable with the instant availability of online news and views that might be critical of them or their allies.

The old guard do not know how to deal with this new phenomenon, which is why they complain incessantly about the Opposition’s “spin”.

The truth is that every political organisation, large or small, uses spin to maximise its impact on the voting public.

Spin is par for the course in today’s political world and it’s not something we should complain about.

If the level of news reporting and journalistic integrity has stooped too low – if fair reporting has suffered because journalists resort to unethical practices such as plagiarism or manufacturing stories – then the solution would be to set up a Press Council to guarantee that minimum standards of professional excellence are maintained.

News organisations that flout the rules of such a council could be fined, while other measures can be taken to improve news reporting – that is, positive measures – because the unending threats to sue newspapers and online portals for incorrect statements and negative reporting is a waste of the court’s time.

Also, banning newspapers and online media from attending any political assembly is not the answer.

Instead, politicians should learn to be a little thick-skinned: after all, it’s part of the business to be attacked and made fun of, and to be misquoted or selectively quoted in a deceptive way.

If we are going to sue and issue threats every time an opponent opens his or her mouth, no work of serving the people and formulating good policies will ever be done.

Our politicians will be quarrelling and threatening one another for every small mistake, deliberate or otherwise, and if this is allowed to continue, the public will be disenchanted even more by the lack of quality leadership in Malaysia.

A serious change in attitude – a paradigm shift, of sorts – is necessary on the part of our political leaders to avoid this endless bickering and name-calling.

Politicians should learn to regard their opponents as a vital and necessary part of the democratic system that they all claim to uphold, and they should learn to live in harmony with one another as far as possible so that real work can get done.

There is no point taking the hard line over trivialities unless we want to dispense with democracy altogether: running a democracy is never as easy or comfortable as ruling with an iron fist.

It’s so much easier to rule North Korea or Saudi Arabia if you are the top dog there, but if you want democracy to continue, then a little discomfort – a little spin here and there – is a necessary part of political life which really shouldn’t bother anyone too much.

By Zaid Ibrahim All kinds of everything The Star/Asia News Network

Former de facto Law Minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim (carbofree@gmail.com) is now a legal consultant. The views expressed here are entirely his own

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