Media, Politics

Spin Jedi Master Alastair Campbell and his Padawan, Jimmy Manyi

Spin Jedi Master Alastair Campbell and his Padawan, Jimmy Manyi

Jimmy Manyi wants the various government communicators to sharpen up. So much so, that he’s invited former British spinmeister Alastair Campbell to shed some wisdom on the dark art of spin. But Campbell may be wholly unable to save the obsessive Manyi’s already faltering run from spinning into ignominy. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

It is an oft-repeated truism that effective spokespeople strive never to become the story themselves. That’s too late for the new government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi now. He has entangled himself horribly with senior cabinet minister Trevor Manuel, and his comments made as the labour department director general having ensured the ANC may never again win Western Cape back from the Democratic Alliance. There was also the small tiny little controversy of his dual-role as head of government communications and information systems and president of the Black Management Forum.

Manyi has also failed to win the government’s various media heads and communications officers to his side. According to the Sunday Times, Manyi has faced two mini-revolts from communications officers, who are seriously miffed by his demand that they issue press releases and meet with the media on a weekly basis. So much so that many government communicators did not pitch up to the government communicators’ forum dinner held on 28 March in revolt against the bossy Manyi, according to the Times.

Plainly put, things have not gone well for Manyi since he became the head of GCIS.

Perhaps then it is fitting that the GCIS would invite Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor who so spectacularly became the story in the British press himself, to address the government communicators’ forum on Monday.

The GCIS said in a statement, “British relations expert Alistair Campbell is in South Africa at the invitation of the GCIS to share lessons and experiences with government communicators.

“As part of its mandate to capacitate government communicators, the GCIS invited Campbell to share some of the experiences he’s gained during his stint in the British government, focusing on the lessons that are relevant and applicable to the South African environment,” the GCIS statement continued.

The lessons tendered by Campbell were rather vague, judging by the soundbites from his speech. He exhorted our spin doctors to “understand that this culture of negativity is not unique to South Africa”. Manyi had earlier remarked that he was puzzled (really?) that the media always found the negative. Campbell assured them that it could get a lot worse, he himself having been called Hitler and Rasputin by the British media. (Tweets by Independent’s Carin du Plessis and Guardian UK’s David Smith)

Did Campbell offer advice about how to become the story and deflect attention away from an unpopular boss? This, after all, was how Tony Blair once wryly spoke of him: “This is Alastair Campbell. He gets more publicity than I do”. We may never know.

Born in Yorkshire in 1957 to a veterinary surgeon, Campbell first worked as a writer in the Inter-City Ditties and the pornographic magazine Forum. In the mid-1980s, he became a political correspondent for the Daily Mirror. He also became an alcoholic, and was briefly hospitalised in 1986. He later moved to the tabloid newspaper Today as a political editor, where he began to make close ties to Labour Party leaders. Campbell’s true calling came a-knocking in 1994 when Labour leader John Smith died, and the new kid on the block Tony Blair invited Campbell to be his spokesman.

Blair’s government (and by extension, Campbell, who became prime minister’s director of communications in 2001) had a brief honeymoon from the press who were enamoured of the new Labour government. That changed quickly with a series of small crises, including a massive protest against a hike in fuel price in 2000 and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, which led to the big one: Britain joining the USA in invading Iraq and justifying this solely on the basis of the “fact” that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.

Campbell defended Blair’s decision to enter the war in Iraq to the bitter end, but was savaged by the press for refusing to deviate from the government’s WMD script.

It all proved a little too much when British nuclear arms expert David Kelly killed himself. Kelly had been a source for debunking the “September Dossier” and the “Iraq Dossier”, on the strength of which the Labour government had helped George W Bush invade Iraq. The two documents have been widely panned as overstating the capabilities of the Saddam Hussein regime to manufacture WMDs. Campbell defended these two documents against increasing public outrage, but eventually resigned in the aftermath of the Hutton Inquiry, which cleared the British government of any involvement in the Kelly suicide.

He’s had a lot of experiencing dealing with a hostile press, shall we say?

But spin doctoring is a highly subjective thing, and Campbell can only distil so much knowledge to Manyi as a non-expert on the South African situation.

But not even the unctuous Campbell can fix what ails Manyi. Spokespeople need to be attuned at all times to not only what sort of image they want to put across, but also how the media and the public see them. Most importantly, they are the last people who can get away with living in an alternative existence. It appears that Manyi doesn’t “get” this.

We’ve said it before: Manyi creates realities in his own head that he then imagines the rest of the world ought to live by. To him, there’s really nothing untoward about declaring that coloureds should uproot themselves from Western Cape and spread themselves across the country. That is how things should be in Manyi’s world. He exhibits the same chronic failure when dealing with the press. His constant exhortations for us to “trust him” and stop worrying, and also his decision to launch a state newspaper all speak of a man who is trying to meld the press to his own liking.

Manyi also exhibits a lack of the government spokesperson’s greatest asset: A rhino-like hide. When Campbell made the brave decision to appear on “Top Gear”, he was roundly booed by the audience. What would Manyi have done in the same circumstance? Certainly not grin defiantly, as Campbell did. No, the delicate Manyi would probably have gone home and penned a press release about a lack of co-operation, or racism, or something of the sort.

These days, Campbell occupies himself by writing (thankfully, not pornography) and giving lectures, as he did for the South African government on 28 and 29 March. Just how much of his both legendary and infamous spin doctoring will rub off on our government’s stable of communicators, well… We wouldn’t mortgage the house on that. DM

Read more:

  • Alastair Campbell: the spin doctor who became the story in the Independent;
  • Is the media’s obsession with Alastair Campbell damaging the Government? in the Guardian;
  • Will Manyi be bigger news than the story? in the Mail & Guardian;
  • State spokesmen rebel against Manyi in TimesLIVE;
  • Alastair Campbell on Top Gear.

Photo: Former Blair aide Alastair Campbell arrives at 10 Downing Street in London for a reception hosted by Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, May 24, 2006. Blair is holding the reception for the participants of SoccerAid, a charity football match to raise funds for UNICEF’s global health, education and protection work with vulnerable children. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor.


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