Politics: Blair must beware the perils of ’soft media’ - The Government has decided to bring its policies to ’the people’ through the medium of television. But Tony Blair and his aides will have to work hard to make sure th

It’s a fair bet that Alastair Campbell, Mirror journalist-turned Government spin meister, didn’t have the happiest Christmas.

It’s a fair bet that Alastair Campbell, Mirror journalist-turned

Government spin meister, didn’t have the happiest Christmas.



Having to cope with the Mandelson and Robinson sagas, closely followed

by the fall-out from Margaret Cook’s book on her ex-husband and Charlie

Whelan’s departure had Campbell and Tony Blair wondering what had gone

wrong with their once carefully controlled PR strategy.



Part of the answer, as Campbell explained to The Fabian Society last

week, is to expand the opportunities for Government ministers to give

their messages straight to voters, live and unedited.



So we can expect to see far more of Tony Blair on the sofa with Richard

and Judy, as well as the myriad of specially tailored articles written

by his press team and printed in many regional newspapers last week. The

ethnic and women’s press will also be offered more interviews with

ministers.



The stategy has been pinched from President Clinton’s 1992 election

campaign, when he eschewed the tough interviews with Larry King and his

ilk in favour of popular breakfast shows.



Even in the UK, politicians have always been star turns on mass market

shows. Radio 2’s Jimmy Young has interviewed Blair six times, and he and

Gordon Brown have already done the rounds of the breakfast TV shows.



But the current plan will see a greater concentration of non-traditional

media being offered interviews in the hope that the Government can get

its messages out unsullied by the latest sex scandal or gaffe.



’It’s not a question of spin, it’s facts that need to be communicated

here,’ says Phil Murphy, who joins the Labour Party next month as

assistant general secretary (communications). ’We need to get the

message across that the Government is positively affecting people’s

lives, and cut through all the personal froth.’



But the irony of this tactic, and its potential pitfall, became all too

clear as Blair chatted amiably with the king and queen of daytime TV,

Richard and Judy. Asked about Hoddle’s comments about disabled people,

Blair found himself drawn into saying that he thought the England

manager should resign.



Of course, he didn’t actually say that. He couched his comment with the

proviso that Hoddle may have been misquoted. But what was splashed over

papers the following morning was effectively that Blair wanted Hoddle to

go.



This early hiccup in its new PR plan perfectly illustrates why the

Government should not assume that Blair will be given an easy ride on

daytime TV, or for that matter, in women’s and regional press.



’There’s a real danger with those kind of chatty interviews that the

relaxed atmosphere might take you off your guard,’ says Hugo Brooke,

managing director of training firm Media Interviews.



And much as Campbell and Blair would have liked Richard and Judy to have

stuck to discussing policy announcements, their viewers were as

interested to hear anecdotes about Cherie and the kids and what Blair

thought of the Hoddle row.



But sources close to the Government insist the game is not about cutting

out the difficult interviews in nationals and on the BBC in favour of

easier times with ’softer’ media. The Government will continue its

relationship with lobby correspondents, but believes there are other

legitimate routes of getting the message over.



Some point out that the plan will mean the Government can target the

voters, mainly C1/C2/D’s, who are largely excluded from political

discussion in this country. ’It’s a very effective way of reaching this

group - the crucial swinging voter,’ says Charles Lewington,

communications director for the Conservative Party from 1995-1997 and

now chairman of political PR agency Media Strategy.



Regional coverage is also likely to leave more of an impression with

readers. ’People do tend to believe the news in regional papers to a

greater extent than the nationals,’ says David Hill, former Labour Party

communications head, now a director of Bell Pottinger Good Relations.

’They recognise that regionals do not have so much of a political axe to

grind.’



But more dealings with the regionals will also mean a new workload for

Campbell and his team, with every briefing being tailored to one

area.



There is also a risk that even regional papers, who may initially

welcome a by-lined piece from the Prime Minister, may tire of the PR

onslaught.



’Our readers wouldn’t believe a piece like the one sent out last week

was written by the PM himself,’ says Ian Savage, deputy editor of the

Bolton Evening News.



Most observers, however, believe the strategy is a wise one. ’If it

worked for Clinton, there’s every chance it will work for Blair,’ says

one.



But Lewington suggests that Campbell may have been better off reserving

the regional strategy for later in the Government’s term of office. He

also advises caution in assuming that regional TV offers a trouble-free

route. ’You don’t want to have the PM interviewed by a regional TV

anchorperson if the Government is in trouble,’ he says. ’That’s when any

ambitious journalist has one eye on their career and turns into Jeremy

Paxman.’



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