An analysis of TV news over three days this week indicates that the Tories achieved frequent coverage by putting up leader David Cameron and backbench MP Mark Field.
But the Tories significantly changed their line of attack after 24 hours.
All parties were caught on the back foot on Sunday morning as it emerged that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith used her parliamentary expenses to claim for two adult films watched by her husband.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband provided the first broadcast quotes after he was questioned on Andrew Marr’s Sunday AM show and refused to comment on the ‘individual allegations’.
Soon afterwards the Conservatives pounced on the story by sending Field around various TV studios. The Tories initially set out to attack Smith, with Field saying: ‘It is not within the spirit of the rules. If she does not recognise that, she is too stupid to be Home Secretary.’ The following day Field was on the airwaves again, describing Smith as ‘unbelievably out of touch’.
But the Tories changed tack later that day, when leader Cameron finally commented. Rather than attack Smith, Cameron turned his fire on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, accusing him of kicking a review of MPs’ expenses ‘in to the long grass’.
Financial Times political correspondent Jim Pickard said: ‘Cameron is making the general claim that sunlight is the best disinfectant because if he criticises individual MPs he could be vulnerable when unfortunate claims by his own MPs surface later in the year – particularly from old-fashioned Tories who have been around for decades.’
Meanwhile, Labour held back from allowing any minister to comment on the subject until Brown himself finally spoke out on Monday and again on Tuesday, when he agreed to bring forward the review of MPs’ expenses. Bell Pottinger’s Peter Bingle said the PM had been ‘precise and authoritative’.
New Statesman political editor James Macintyre told PRWeek: ‘It is notable that the Conservative and Lib Dem leaderships have refrained from emulating the full-on attack by the media… because they have no way of knowing their own front-benchers will not be next in this slow-motion scandal.’
David Cracknell, director of Big Tent Communications and former Sunday Times political editor, agreed with this, but added: ‘These sleaze eruptions favour the opposition parties… the media will always consider it a sexier story if a minister is involved.’
Intelligent Media measured the number of times spokespeople for the main political parties featured on BBC News 24, Sky News, ITV1 and BBC1 from 8am on 29 March to 12pm on 31 March.
29 March Sunday Express breaks story that Jacqui Smith used expenses to claim for adult films
28 March Labour MP Harry Cohen comes under fire for claiming more than £300,000 in home allowances, while listing a caravan and a single-bedroom schoolhouse as his main residences
22 March Immigration minister (pictured) faces criticism for claiming an allowance on his parent’s home in Harrow – he lives nearby in Hammersmith
18 February Smith is found claiming allowances for her family home, while listing her sister’s house as her main residence
December 2008 Nick Bourne and Alun Cairns, Tory members of the Welsh Assembly ,use expenses to purchase iPods
June 2008 Conservative MP Caroline Spelman admits using her allowance for payments to her children’s former nanny
853 articles in national press about Smith’s expenses *
238 articles contained the word ‘sleaze’ *
113 articles contained the word ‘scandal’ *