Media Analysis: Sketch writers: missed opportunity

Political sketch writers are well read in the national press,but many PROs seem unaware of this doorway to the media. Adam Hill asks Westminster observers how PR affects the work they do in the corridors of power.

PROs looking to influence debate around and beyond the despatch box have a range of options open to them in the broadsheet press. With off-the-record briefings from 'Downing Street sources' and politicians' spokespeople, lobbyists and corporate PROs have worked the Whitehall grapevine effectively in the last decade as journalists tramp the corridors looking for policy scoops and personality steers.

Yet one breed of hack appears above the fray. Although their work in daily papers is well read, and not just in the Westminster village, sketch writers seem to be an untapped source for PROs despite their unrivalled view of events from select committees to set-pieces such as Prime Minister's Questions.

They are in a position to anticipate headlines well in advance: recent issues such as pension problems and council tax caps have been bubbling away in obscure debates for months.

The Times sketch writer Ann Treneman says PROs appear to be avoiding her. Her colleagues agree. The reason for this reticence is simple, according to Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts. 'The trouble with sketches as far as PROs go is they tend to be very subjective judgements. Sketch writers make character assessments, which is terribly dangerous,' he says.

He refers to the comments last year of Barclays boss Matt Barrett in a treasury select committee about the cost of borrowing on credit cards.

Admittedly, this had all the news appeal of a motorway pile-up, but the scope of sketch coverage means positive PR opportunities must be there.

Letts adds: 'If your CEO is going to make a newsworthy but positive point at a select committee, it is worth giving us a heads-up. PROs don't often think of us, they go to newsdesks instead.'

Letts talks wistfully about the PRO for one Tory bigwig, since departed from the limelight: 'He used to try and thump you. He was playful but brutish and came to be a figure of fun.'

But such cajoling is an exception. Katie Perrior, spokesperson for shadow home secretary David Davies, says: 'Sketch writers love the autonomy.

PROs will have a hard job to persuade them of something by bullying. It's much better to have a chat.'

ANN TRENEMAN, THE TIMES

What is the nature of your role?

To get under the pomposity of parliament. Apart from sketch writers sitting there and watching what happens, not much reporting of the chamber goes on any more.

How do you get on with political PROs?

I don't think they want to have much contact with me but I'm always interested in information. Politicians or their representatives might also give you a quote or a background briefing if you ask.

Describe an ideal approach from a PRO

I'm interested in obesity, so if there was something from a pressure group or about a product, I'd look at it. Sometimes I might get a follow-up call, but after that they'd have to leave me alone.

SIMON HOGGART THE GUARDIAN WHAT'S YOUR HUNTING GROUND?

We always do what's in the chamber, committee meetings and conferences.

Our job is to tell people what they know is happening and give it a spin.

So you do have dealings with PROs?

I remember three Lib Dem PROs standing round my screen saying: 'Wasn't Paddy (Ashdown) brilliant at Prime Minister's Questions?' But that's about it. MPs love to see their rivals done down. PR people have nothing to threaten us with. They know it would only make things worse.

Wouldn't some positive PRO involvement be helpful, though?

It is conceivable that a heads-up on a meeting, say, would be useful, but it would have to be 'untainted' info.

ANDREW GIMSON, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

Do PROs approach you to give their side of a story?

They haven't tried that and I hope they'd be intelligent enough to realise that it wouldn't make any difference. I'm sure many PR people are delightful, but I am somewhat allergic to the idea of them influencing what I do.

When would PR come onto your radar?

I might mention it if an Alastair Campbell-type figure was passing notes to the prime minister, but spin doctors don't really bother with sketch writers.

Is there a role for PROs in what you do?

This is not the kind of journalism where I would be ringing up to check things with people. My efforts are not crammed with figures, for example.

I'd be as likely to talk to other journalists.

SIMON CARR, THE INDEPENDENT

How often are you approached by PROs?

Almost never. We are seen very much as small fry. We don't get the same concerted effort from spin doctors as the big guns. But I was once approached by the speaker's media minder and upbraided gently for being rude. I thought that was quite funny.

What sort of information would be useful from PROs?

I'm glad to receive anything. I enjoy figures. Interpretation of statistics is so subjective that PR people ought to be pre-eminent.

Is there anything you've received from a PRO that has made a difference to you?

(Pressure group) Reform has sent me stuff which has helped organise my mind on certain things.

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