As the Arab Spring struggles not to return to winter - sometimes with a little help from powerful friends -- I came across this fascinating thought concerning one of the likely but entirely unintended consequences of the emerging political reality in North Africa and the Middle East. In a piece contributed to TIME Magazine, the articulate and insightful blogger, Issandr El Amrani, [I recommend his blog: the Arabist] wrote:
In these countries where leaders were long used to sycophantic interviews, they now face combative interviewers out to make a reputation for themselves. It will be a while before spin doctors come in to teach the politicians to stay on-message ---in the meantime, they are walking the tightrope without a net.
El Amrani is partly wrong and partly right. Where he is wrong is that he seems to think it will take a while for politicians to reach for their spin doctors the same way they used to reach for their goons. I don't think it will take them long at all. But he is right to point out that the spin doctors are coming...legions of them, with frigate-loads of sound-bites.*
Just think about it. All those young Facebook revolutionaries and their brave deeds. Did they know that victory would mean not merely freedom but also the attention of legions of sultans of spin? Had they known that would they have hesitated, the poor things? Soon, very soon, they are going to be so comprehensively and intensively surveyed, focus-grouped, and messaged they will want to head for the desert for some peace and quiet!
More seriously though, the reason El Amrani's point provoked this blog post is because this is a movie that I have seen before. When I worked for the UK Government in London, I was part of the Government Communication Network. And I became aware of this interesting phenomenon: whenever governments lost autocratic control of the public sphere in their countries and they suddenly had to worry about public opinion and fierce, independent journalists, they immediately asked for help to build the communication capacities of their governments.'Our opponents are killing us out there in the public arena', they would moan. 'We need help to make this a fair fight.'
I was a civil servant in the Tony Blair era; and you will recall that his government had a reputation for superb communication management skills...at least for a good while Thus, when democracies erupted in Eastern Europe the new governments came calling. They wanted their own spin doctors to be taught the dark arts of spin. And when multi-party democracy came to Africa, several governments also came calling. I remember attending a meeting in London in the office of the permanent secretary of the government department in which I served. It was attended by all the permanent secretaries -- all of them -- serving in the government of a particular African country. They were in London for a week or so to study the communication structures, processes and techniques of UK Government.
I thought that was a bit extreme, but it only tells you what is about to happen in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ha, life. I suppose a citizen cannot hope to live in a perfect world. Far better the ministrations of spin-doctors than the visitation of jackboots to head and hind.
[*See generally: Fritz Plasser and Gunda Plasser, Global Political Campaigning: A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices, Praeger Series in Political Communication]
Photo Credit: Bill Lyons, 2002, World Bank