The paper-thin gap between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson for London mayor is being eked out across the pages of a voracious media. Read any three newspapers, magazines or blogs and you will find opposing views of the likelihood of success for the Labour or Conservative candidates. Occasionally the Lib Dems' Brian Paddick and the Green Party's Siân Berry get a look in as well.
More than ever before, though, London-based newspapers in particular have become mouthpieces for a single candidate - and that candidate appears to be anybody but Livingstone.
‘Neil Kinnock said, "everybody likes Ken except the people who know him",' says the Evening Standard's mouthpiece and high-profile reporter Andrew Gilligan, making no apologies for his paper's anti-Livingstone stance.
‘We are not a London branch of the Daily Mail, but a paper that knows Ken well.' Gilligan's firm views put into context how difficult PROs are finding it to break through the editorial stance of certain publications.
The Johnson-leaning press are headed by the Metro and the Standard. Freesheet thelondonpaper appears less one-sided, partially through the lack of political columnists, and this is echoed in the London Lite.
The New Statesman and The Spectator, both with heavy London-based readerships, stick to their left and right-leaning guns respectively. The Independent, which boasts the most London-centric readership of any national, appears to be the most balanced editorially.
The cocktail of potential space to score political gains or losses makes the job for the various candidates' PROs even more difficult. ‘Ken has it hardest, no doubt,' says Fleishman-Hillard associate director, issues and management Gavin Megaw. ‘He needs to, and has done, three things.
Targeted the local press, got on to broadcast and set strong agendas.' Megaw stresses the importance of well-read local publications such as the Camden New Journal and Islington Tribune, which through establishing close relationships with editors, can prove a vital mouthpiece for candidates.
‘Sustained campaigning is important, making sure for broadcast you have new images for morning, lunch and evening news and using the Alastair Campbell technique of taking a single issue and running with it all day,' adds Megaw. ‘Boris has proved particularly adept at that.'
This is the first truly digital mayoral campaign (box, right). According to Insight Public Affairs environment and transport head Olly Kendall, Paddick has been particularly active in the digital arena. US ‘blogfather' Jerome Armstrong has made sure the Lib Dem candidate has maintained a healthy online presence.
The Tory network of bloggers - Guido Fawkes et al - have been bashing the Boris drum. But Livingstone's digital team of Matthew McGregor and Nick Lowles have found it difficult to establish as positive an online presence, against the weight of Tory digital media.
According to the majority of PROs close to or directly involved in the election, the campaign is being dictated largely by the established London press. ‘The most interesting battle in this year's mayoral contest has not been between Ken and Boris but between the Evening Standard and the mayor,' suggests Kendall.
Sources close to the paper indicate it had nearly 40 anti-Livingstone stories ready to roll before the election began. He has come under attacks even the most skilled PR professional could do nothing about.
The Standard's news stories appear to be more balanced than one might expect. ‘Whatever perception there may be, our reporting is straight and we are not given a political agenda to follow,' stresses the Standard's political correspondent Pippa Crerar, who is heading up its mayoral coverage. ‘Even the Ken campaign has admitted the reports are fair, and I am proud of that.'
If Johnson comes up trumps, perhaps it will be a victory for the London papers, as much as for his clever campaigning. If Livingstone wins, then his PROs will have performed a marvellous job circumventing the capital's media.
Two minutes with the award-winning reporter
Andrew Gilligan, Evening Standard
Would you say the Standard is a Johnson-supporting newspaper?
On the comment side we are anti-Livingstone. I accept a lot of our stories go against his leadership. But that is simply because there are more stories on him.
But your news stories also seem one-sided?
I would disagree with that. We have a strict separation between news and comment. Every story we write is factual and measured. Every side has the opportunity to respond.
So is there a chance for Labour PROs to achieve positive coverage?
We did a recent story on the London Development Agency (LDA) [in which Livingstone-led projects involving the LDA were criticised]. It got large headlines and a lot of coverage because it was a good story, not because it was anti-Livingstone.
But most Johnson coverage is positive?
We already know most of the stuff on him and digging did not find anything new.
What is your newspaper's demographic?
It is broader than most, which actually proves a problem in some ways. We have to cater to a wide audience so we talk to people from all sides of the story.
YouGov founder Stephan Shakespeare's political baby. Shows Ken closing in
In the midst of general London happenings. Slightly anarchic, fairly free of political allegiance
Boris leads the way with more than one million hits of him playing football, badly
Withering look at all things political, particularly if they are pro-right or anti-left. More anti-Ken than pro-Boris
Crowdsourcing debate website with candidates answering users questions. Paddick and Berry have used it well