Government 'lost PR battle' after refusing to appear on Question Time

The coalition Government has 'lost a PR battle' after refusing to appear on Question Time alongside Tony Blair's former director of communications Alastair Campbell, warned a public affairs chief.

Labour PR advisor: Alastair Campbell
Labour PR advisor: Alastair Campbell

The Government refused to provide a ministerial guest for the BBC political show screened last night unless Campbell was removed from the panel.

The BBC rejected the demand and the show was broadcast.

Mandate Communications CEO Sacha Deshmukh said: ‘I think the coalition lost a PR battle on this one. On the one hand they want to send a strong signal that they are in charge of a new politics, but with this action they looked scared of one of the oldest of old guard figures from the Blair years.'

He added: ‘The coalition's leaders need to have a very visible "bring it on" public face at all times, or else they will risk starting to look weak, which is always fatal in politics.'

Fleishman-Hillard head of public affairs Nick Williams concurred and added: 'Failing to put up a cabinet minister in the week of announcing the Government's new legislative programme looked messy at best. It allowed Alastair Campbell free rein to delight in this situation. Going forward the coalition Government will need a clearer line on how to deal with programmes such as Question Time - new politics will need new rules of engagement for panel discussions.'

On a BBC blog posted last night, Question Time executive editor Gavin Allen said it was the first time in his three years in the role that a cabinet minister would only appear on the programme if another member of the panel was replaced.

Very obviously, we refused and as a result no minister appeared, meaning the Government was not represented on the country's most-watched political programme in Queen's Speech week - one of the most important moments in the parliamentary calendar.'

He added: ‘It is a fundamental principle of our independence that politicians cannot dictate who sits on the panel. It is for Question Time, not for political parties, to make judgments about impartiality and to determine who is invited to appear in the interests of the audience. Parties are free of course to accept or reject those invitations, but they do not have a right of veto over other panellists.'

Allen said Number 10 had stated the objection to Campbell was that he was not an elected Labour representative or a front-bencher.

Weber Shandwick chairman of corporate communications and public affairs Jon McLeod said the decision not to feature on the programme was 'intriguing'. 'It was a tactic worthy of Alastair Campbell himself to try to get the BBC to change the line-up. There has been a statesman-like quality to the coalition so far, but this does not sit well with that.

'We are hearing alot about new politics, but this is more like the old politics. The BBC is an important component of democracy, and having an argument this early on is not a good augury for the next five years. From a communications perspective, having a row with the BBC is not a sign of self assurance. It is an odd fight to pick.'





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