Long ago I heard a prominent chap whose name I can’t recall say on
TV that he never read anything in a newspaper which predicted what was
going to happen. He didn’t regard that as news, only speculation.
This greatly speeded up his reading of the morning’s press and gave him
a firmer grasp of reality. As a press secretary at the time, I admired
his approach and greatly envied him the luxury of his discipline.
Assuming he is still with us, he won’t waste much time these days on the
press. Much of today’s fare is a forecast of what is going to happen
rather than a record of what actually did occur. No politician now
greatly surprises us or even his party conference. They ’trail’ their
speeches the night before. No policy announcement comes fresh to the
ears of Parliamentarians who are supposed to be told first because they
hold the money bags. Most of them are extensively leaked. So are all
kinds of other announcements such as last weekend’s insight into Lord
Neill’s report on the funding of political parties.
There is nothing fundamentally new in this. Leaks have always been with
us. Some PR professionals have always seen ’two bites at the cherry’ in
it, that is, a double dose of coverage. Ministers of all political
parties have sought to ’prepare’ public opinion, as they describe it.
Chancellors have been known to add a dash of disinformation to keep back
Invariably summiteers have put the boot into other political leaders
before the event, seldom at it. But making today’s news yesterday has
never been so systematic. And in Government ’trailing’ was last year
made obligatory by the Government Information and Communication
Service’s new code.
I have never been keen on this ’virtual reality’ newsmaking. For one
thing, it enables your opponents to do a better demolition job while the
issue is still hot news. It is also open to abuse which is why it is
liked by PR people. It enables them to flog a line to journalists who
are desperate for a story, especially one which anticipates the event.
It puts PROs in the driving seat. They can almost dictate the story.
But it isn’t the whole story. If it is excessively partial, it may
damage the PRO’s credibility as a ’trailer’. On the other hand, it might
I often wonder whether journalists are now more concerned about getting
a story rather than an accurate story. If their preoccupation is with a
story, then the PRO is king. Certainly, the balance between journalist
and PRO has shifted in the PRO’s favour. So, when will editors
rediscover their refusal to be ’manipulated’ which only a decade ago
nearly led to the break-up of the Lobby? Perhaps when Tony Blair becomes
a dead parrot too.