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Review: Alpha Dogs by James Harding
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 16/08/2008
Robert Colvile discovers how political spin became a global business
In early 2006, a Nepali citizen was kidnapped by Maoist rebels. In return for his release, they demanded not money, nor the release of political prisoners, but polling data.
The hostage had been carrying out opinion surveys on behalf of an American firm, to find out what the people of this newborn democracy really believed. For the Maoists, such information was far more valuable than cash.
The last few decades have seen democratisation sweep across the world. But with that came a remarkable opportunity for those, such as that firm working in Nepal, who could tell the new presidents and political parties how elections really worked, and explain the right way to burnish their own images and tarnish their rivals'.
As James Harding, editor of The Times, explains in this fascinating history of the phenomenon, nobody was better at this than the Americans.
Especially successful was the Sawyer Miller Group, the small firm whose staff, the swaggering "alpha dogs" of the title, could be found whispering in the ears of opposition groups, leaders and corporate titans around the world.
Such spin, as Harding points out, is nothing new. Cicero urged electioneers to stir up "scandalous talk... about the crimes, lusts and briberies of your competitors". John Beckley, who worked on Thomas Jefferson's campaign, was equally eager to "go negative", accusing George Washington of embezzling public funds. Since then things have become a lot more professional.
In the 1996 election in Israel, Arthur Finkelstein, the American consultant who had turned "liberal" into a swearword, used polling data to pinpoint precisely the issue over which Israelis would reject a deal with the Palestinians - the division of Jerusalem - and propel Benjamin Netanyahu to a victory based on exemplary scare-mongering.
Such techniques could also be used for good. Sawyer Miller's staff were originally idealists, convinced of the power of mass communication to create a new bond between rulers and ruled. In a Chilean plebiscite on the dictatorship of General Pinochet, they used feel-good advertising to guide the opposition to an unlikely victory.
More impressive still was the way in which Mark Malloch Brown, now a self-important Foreign Office minister but then a self-important journalist, shaped the message of Cory Aquino as she struggled - successfully - to unseat the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.
There were limits to their powers, however. If a candidate was not up to the task, there was little the spin doctors could do.
One of the best chapters in the book concerns Sawyer Miller's attempts to shepherd the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to the presidency of Peru. After Vargas Llosa staffed the campaign with his own relatives, insisted thousands would lose their jobs in Thatcherite economic shock therapy and displayed a disdainful attitude towards the poor and non-white, his vast lead in the polls collapsed.
"The blame game that followed," says Harding, "resembled a drunken gathering of amateur knife throwers. Everyone ended up a little wounded."
There was more bloodshed to come. Sawyer Miller sold its political techniques to US executives, persuading firms to position and defend themselves in the same way as candidates for elections.
While immensely lucrative, this introduced the tension that would cause the company to fall apart: should it follow the pay cheques on Wall Street, or the buzz of the campaign trail?
Harding chooses to focus on the politics - with good reason, given his enthusiasm for the subject. Indeed, the result is a wonderful read for any politics obsessive. But it is also a dispiriting one. The techniques spread across the world by Sawyer Miller and its kind have, Harding says, done little to improve the quality of political discourse, or of the candidates who win elections.
Instead, local differences have slowly been ground away by the globalisation of spin. "There is a parochial notion that elections are different everywhere," says Mark McKinnon, ad man to George W Bush and Sawyer Miller alumnus. "They are not... The things that drive elections are the same in Nebraska as they are in Ghana."
Much hope has been pinned on the internet to turn things around, but Harding is not hopeful.
Sawyer Miller, he points out, believed the same would be true of television, the path to "a newer, truer, healthier democracy".
In a world where the Tories are prepared to pay their spin doctor two-and-a-half times more than their party leader, it is a fair bet that the back-room boys will be with us for a long while to come.