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From journalist to spin doctor and back

| Text: Marie Preisler

Journalists becoming communications advisors, or in particular spin doctors to politicians, often say goodbye to journalism for good. But not always. Three former spin doctors tell us about their return to the media world. They all agree their time ‘on the opposite side of the table’ has made them better journalists.

Businesses and politicians alike are increasingly hiring journalists as their communications advisors, and for many journalists it means a permanent career change. Parts of the media sector are principally opposed to hiring journalists who have been spin doctors or communications advisors for private companies. But there are exceptions to the rule: some ex-spin doctors return to the media trade, and they say journalism benefits from journalists who have tried life behind the closed doors of political negotiations and central management.

So says Jakob Høyer, a trained journalist and a spin doctor between 2001 and 2003 for the then Conservative Minister for Culture Brian Mikkelsen. He went straight form the job as a spin doctor to be the culture editor for the Berlingske Tidende newspaper, and then editor in chief for the daily metroXpress.

“I returned to the media trade with deep and valuable insight into how the central administration works, and with a new and more nuanced view of the media. From the other side of the table I could see how many nuances disappear in the media’s coverage of an issue, because it goes so incredibly fast.” 

Jakob Høyer thinks talking about ‘objective journalism’ is antiquated. Media have prejudices too, some more than others, he finds.

Spin doctors a new phenomenon

When he became a spin doctor in 2001 it was a new thing for Danish government ministers to employ prominent news journalists from leading news media as their personal advisors, and the reactions were considerable. Jakob Høyer came from being culture editor for Jyllands-Posten, and he remembers that when he said he had been given a new job as a spin doctor he had to clear out his desk at the newspaper and leave the building immediately.  

“I was asked to leave without delay. At the time it really was considered bad form and it was something people in the media trade turned their noses up at.”

He reckons the antipathy today is less severe, but he still hears editors declare they would never hire a journalist who has been a spin doctor or communications advisor for business.

“The reluctance has diminished, but it is still there and it is a shame because media loose out on insight into politics which they cannot get otherwise.”

Jakob Høyer did not himself find it problematic to become a culture editor straight from advising the then Conservative Minister for Culture.

“When I returned to journalism I’m sure there were some who doubted that I could do critical journalism, but I was never a member of the Conservative Party, and as culture editor I helped create very critical culture journalism — for one thing because I knew the subject matter so well.”

He points out that there will always be a risk that journalists get too close to their sources, but that risk is no bigger for ex-spin doctors than it is for other journalists. 

“A business journalist can also get too close to a company, and a sports journalist too close to a sport star. It is always the duty of journalists and media houses to keep an eye on this and react to it.”

A cooling off period could be necessary

That risk can in some cases make it relevant to introduce a cooling off period for journalists who have been spin doctors. So says another former spin doctor who is now back in the media business, Ulla Østergaard.

Like Jacob Høyer she trained as a journalists and worked as a political reporter and editor at the Jyllands-Posten newspaper before becoming a spin doctor for the former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (the Liberal Party) in 2001, who was then the Minister of Interior and Health. After her spin doctor job, Ulla Østergaard became an editor with TV channel TV2 News.

“No matter the type of job, an employee carries some loyalty to the former employer and has a lot of confident information which it would be unethical to disclose as a journalist. That’s why I would have imposed a cooling off period for myself if I had become a political reporter again. I didn’t become a political reporter, but chose instead an editor’s job,” she says.

In her job as editor her spin doctor past has, however, been controversial several times, including when she was responsible for TV2’s 2010 election coverage.

Like Jacob Høyer she has never been politically active, and believes herself to be able to work for most of Denmark’s political parties. She also believes the spin doctor’s access to the ‘machine room’ of a political party and to the central administration can benefit journalism.

“It can result both in a better and more critical journalism. I am for instance more aware of the need for a story’s angle, and to give officials a fair chance to present the facts.”

Objectivity; an illusion worth aiming for

Amalie Kestler thinks the same. She has been head of press for Copenhagen’s Social Democrat Lord Mayor Frank Jensen. Before and after that job she she worked as an editor for several different media.

“It is natural to have a debate about whether you can go back and forth between journalism and communication. You always need to make a concrete assessment. I believe I became a better journalist through my experience from the Copenhagen Town Hall.

“It is one thing to write about political processes based on sources who tell you what it is like. It is something else to experience it close up. It means that you as a journalist later on can use that knowledge and find stories which many other would not see. But of course there are job changes which should be carefully considered from a journalist ethics point of view. There might also be issues you cannot or should not be writing about for a while afterwards.”

She believes the idea of objective journalism is dangerous to journalism itself. 

“Objectivity is an illusion, but of course you should always strive towards being objective when you work with news journalism. It is, however, really important to always be aware of how and why you as a conveyor of news is being used and allow yourself to be used by politicians or other interested parties. Being aware of this gives you the best balanced reporting. The worst thing is journalists who believe they are being objective, but who in reality are running someone’s errand without being aware of it themselves.”

Amalie Kestler has been a political reporter for years and considers political journalism to be “a serious issue”.

“As a political reporter you have a lot of influence, and I think it is incredibly important to use that power with care. You should always think about the context in which you find yourself when you write. This is actually difficult, and it should be difficult. Nobody is perfect. But I believe the goal must always be to stick to the point and to be critical to everybody and to write the stories as correctly as possible. Which again is nearly impossible, because everything is in the eye of the beholder.”

Amalie Kestler has left traditional news journalism and is now the editor at the daily Politiken’s opinion pages, where she writes editorials and opinion pieces. But she still believes in striving for objective journalism when it comes to news journalism.

“I have left the news genre for views, where the list of ingredients is clear because the messenger is clear; a journalist or a medium. People can make up their minds about what you are writing and to the messenger — they can agree or disagree. I don’t pretend to myself or to the reader to be objective, even though I always try to be to the point according to my own and the paper’s definitions. This is different from news journalism, where striving for objectivity is a natural and correct goal.”

Editor in chief believes in common sense

The daily Information, where Amalie Kestler became political editor after her time as a spin doctor, has some rules for hiring a journalist who has worked as a spin doctor, explains Information’s editor in chief Christian Jensen:

“We have nothing against that type of hiring in principle and at Information we have previously hired one former political advisor. What matters to us is to maintain our integrity and trust, so we would never hire a journalist to cover the same subject matters as that person was responsible for as a spin doctor. This could lead to conflicts of interest.” 

There were no such conflicts when the paper made Amalie Kestler political editor after she had worked as a spin doctor for Copenhagen’s Lord Mayor, the editor thinks.

“As a niche paper we don’t particularly write about Copenhagen Municipality, and I have not experienced any problems in that regard,” says Christian Jensen.

He reckons it is too “holy” not to hire former spin doctors on principle. Use common sense instead is his advice:

“Look the individual journalist in the eyes and consider whether that person can be trusted to let you know if he or she ends up with a story where there’s a conflict of interest. It can happen to us all, but in that case the party concerned should be taken off the story and given a different one.”

Facts

Jakob Høyer

43 years old
2006 Graduated as a journalist
2006-2001 culture journalist and culture editor for several daily newspapers
2001-2003 spin doctor for the then Minister for Culture Brian Mikkelsen (Conservative Party) 
2003-2007 culture editor for the daily Berlingske Tidende. 
2007-2010 editor in chief for the daily metroXpress
2010-2013 Head of Communication at DSB
2013-2014 Director, Public Relations LEAD Agency 
From September 2014 Head of Communication at the Danish Football Association (DBU)


Amalie Kestler 

38 years old
Graduated as a journalist
Began her career as political reporter and political editor for Ritzau and news editor for Berlingske Tidende
2010 Head of press for the finance administration at the Copenhagen Municipality and spin doctor for Lord Mayor Frank Jensen (Social Democrats).
2012-13 political editor for the daily Information
2013 – Editorial writer and now editor for the comment pages at the daily Politiken


Ulla Østergaard 

49 years old
Graduated as a journalist
Started her career as a political reporter and editor at the daily Jyllands-Posten
2001-2006 Spin doctor at the Ministry of Interior and Health and spin doctor for Lars Løkke Rasmussen (the Liberal Party). 
2006-2007 Editor for the TV channel TV2 News 
2007 Head of Press for the Liberal Alliance
Today back as editor at TV2 News

Shrinking media

The Danish media sector is shrinking while the communications business is growing. One in ten jobs in media — ca 2,000 jobs — have disappeared in the past three years in line with a fall in revenue. The economy is particularly strained for printed media like newspapers, weeklies and magazines, as well as for district papers and classifieds. They have seen a major fall in advertising revenues and fewer people are buying newspapers. From 2010 to 2013 Danish newspapers’ readership fell by some 11 percent, and nationals have seen the greatest fall with 27 percent. In this same period many new jobs have emerged in the communications business. 

Source: The Danish Agency for Culture, “Report on media’s development in Denmark” 2014, and more.

 
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