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Cameron has an army of spin doctors – aka journalists

Posted on 18 September 2009 | 10:09am

For those of you who don’t get the New
Statesman, here is the piece I have written for this week’s issue, on the
media’s love-in with David Cameron. Have
vlogged on similar subject.

Accustomed though I am to occasional populism, I
found myself having to squirm away from the TV when David Cameron came on to
announce his post-summer holiday Big Idea — lower salaries and more expensive
chips for MPs. 

It was not just the piddling nature of the
proposals – even Cameron called them a ‘pinprick’ – more striking was the
fullscale bells and whistles media operation, complete with BBC cameras popping
in to watch him clear away the cereal boxes and urge his wife to ‘trust me’ as
he kissed her goodbye.

A former spin doctor, Cameron will have been
happy with the outcome. Leading BBC bulletins, not bad print coverage, a bit
sniffy in places, but hey, all things considered …

All things considered, it was but the latest
evidence of the media double standards applied to the two main party leaders.
For Gordon Brown, any excuse for any abuse will do. For Cameron, ‘easy ride’
does not begin to describe it.

Pot. Kettle. Black, say some, I having been
involved in the odd successful media hit. But – book plug essential here I’m
afraid – read my diaries. Every day of Opposition was hard.  And every
day, the demands, expectations and intensity of scrutiny by the media were
greater than anything Cameron has had to endure. His Bullingdon club antics –
evidence not of elitism, privilege and weird values, but a sign that the public
(as defined by the press) are ready to be ruled by toffs again. Drugs? He’s
decided not to answer, so let’s stop asking. Expenses? Let’s cover the tough
noises he makes about others, and park his own taxpayer-funded mortgage.

As for policy, why should we press him to spell
it all out? Doesn’t it just show how clever he is, not to open himself to
scrutiny? So let’s not worry too much about what might have happened had
Britain adopted his do-nothing approach to the global financial crisis. Take as
read his desire to help middle income families, and don’t tell anyone he wants
to remove tax credits that might help them. Keep trotting out the pictures of
him leading his huskies in the Arctic and overlook Tory councils turning down
application after application for ‘bird blenders’, as Cameron calls wind farms.
As for Europe, ok, he has got into bed with a bunch of racists, homophobes,
climate change denyers and extremists, but it won’t damage Britain’s influence
in Europe … er, will it?

The Tories like to say they model much of their
strategy on what Tony Blair did in modernising the Labour Party. But important
though words, branding and pictures for the Beeb may have been, the hard yards
were won not by PR puffery, but by difficult strategic and policy decisions to
show the public we had got the message of successive defeats, and had changed.

Ask Tories how Cameron has changed the party and
they tend to say he’s got them ahead in the polls. Fair enough. Ask journalists
and they will happily regurgitate the line from Central Office about
detoxifying the brand. Ask a member of the public what if any policy proposals
have been made to indicate change, and they could be forgiven for knowing of
none. I don’t mean not many. I mean none.

Scratch beneath the poll headlines a little, and
his main problem with the public remains lack of substance. His strategy seems
to compound that, yet still the analysis remains soft.

Now go back to Neil Kinnock. Try to imagine what
the media would do to a Kinnock-led Labour Party that was unable to say what it
intended to do on tax, or how much it intended to spend on which public
services. Imagine a Kinnock-led party whose European policy was seen as misguided
by virtually every major power in the world. Imagine a Kinnock-led Labour Party
whose shadow cabinet was as unknown as this one.

This is not a call on the media to be anti-Tory
in the way the press was virulently anti-Labour then. But it is to ask why so
many of them appear to have suspended the kind of critical analysis normally
applied to the Opposition.

General support from papers like the Mail and
the Telegraph, given their avowed right-wing position and hatred of new Labour,
it is at least explicable; and for the Murdoch stable, not only is there the
usual pragmatic analysis of who they think might win, but their basic worldview
tends to be on the right. Much odder is the way parts of the left press have
fallen under Cameron’s spell, buying the line that he has progressive goals,
when in speech after speech, once you get beneath the cutesy headline, and in
Commons vote after Commons vote, the opposite is revealed. Even more striking
is the way the broadcasters cover him as though he were PM-elect, not an
Opposition leader whose words and actions should be covered with at least the
same level of scepticism and inquiry attached to the government.

This is not just about the media. Labour too
needs to do a far better job of getting after him. It is not simply what
happens at PMQs that matters, hugely important though those exchanges are to
setting the strategic lines for the election. He and his colleagues have to
start feeling pressure from every level of the Labour Party. That task would be
easier if MPs with an eye on future leadership elections rather than the
general elections stopped spreading the message that nothing has been achieved,
that the country hasn’t changed, that effectively we have failed. It helps
nobody but Cameron. And it’s not true.

People say they don’t like negative campaigning.
But there are three planks to any campaign – the setting out of a forward
agenda, defence of the record, and attacks on your opponents. All are
essential. All have to be done with verve and vigour. And on all three, Labour
have the makings of a strong position. So as Andrew Rawnsley rightly said at
the weekend, if the media won’t do its job properly (I paraphrase) Labour needs
to do even better at carrying out those tasks. Policy. Defence. Attack.

Journalists, particularly after so-called Labour
spin, like to pride themselves on their refusal to be spun. They are being spun
big style, coverage driven by their view that Cameron has won, and that is the
story. Anything that points in that direction, it is news. If it doesn’t, it’s
not. If he does win, he will do so as the most under examined, under
scrutinised, untested, policy-lite leader in history, aided and abetted by an
army of willing self-spinners, dotted around the papers and the broadcast stations,
who by their indifference to genuine scrutiny help him every day.

  • Andy Walker

    Agree with you on the media love-in on Cameron, but when are we going to see any semblance of a fight back from the Labour leadership? At the moment they are sleepwalking to defeat at the next election. You yourself recognise that “Labour needs to do a far better job of getting after” Cameron but thus far there is precious little chance of that. Rather than trying to out-Tory the Tories over who will cut the most from the public purse, Labour should be targeting the real problem – the profligacy and greed from the Tories’ friends in the city that got us into this mess in the first place.

  • Ronald Mizen

    Could it be said that New Labour and the way in which you approached communications in the past has given rise to a new generation of lazy journalists who are more happy to be given a story and go with the flow, than research a story of their own? Maybe instead of relying on the journalists to find the bad news and print it, Labour could make the news for them. Surely spin goes both ways.

  • Michael

    Hmm. I do recall Mr Balir being pressed on his spending plans before the last election and saying he wasn’t going to write a budget before it was necessary to do so. The Times. Independent, Guardian Sun and Mirror have been mostly New Labourish this past decade. Also, the Mail was rather keen on Gordon Brown from a time and disparaging of ‘Call me Dave’. The press media can be very brutal – as you well know. Murdoch has seen the change in the wind and is re-aligning himself, as is his wont.

    The problem is unemplyoment is on the rise again, youth unemployment is where it was 12 years ago, the public finances are in a terrible mess. The public sector has been tinkered with, showered with cash, but not radically reformed.

    Austerity beckons and New Labour was formed in a happier, easier, more affluent time. When he came to power, Tony Blair said it would take 10 years to transform the country – very many people do not like the transformation. Despite his shortcomings, Cameron has Blair’s gift for timing alright. To rail against the metropollitan, highly educated, environment loving BBC of Andrew Marr (so much of its cultural and comedy output is anti-Tory) is bizarre. You don’t have a Conservative sympathiser to see the bizarre evasions over spending of Brown and Mandelson this past week and not be disenchanted.

  • Charlie

    @AC “Journalists, particularly after so-called Labour spin, like to pride themselves on their refusal to be spun. They are being spun big style, coverage driven by their view that Cameron has won, and that is the story. Anything that points in that direction, it is news. If it doesn’t, it’s not. If he does win, he will do so as the most under examined, under scrutinised, untested, policy-lite leader in history, aided and abetted by an army of willing self-spinners, dotted around the papers and the broadcast stations, who by their indifference to genuine scrutiny help him every day.”

    You may well have hit the nail on the head there AC.
    It is the HUGE AMOUNT OF OUR MONEY that has been squandered on producing Labour’s achievements that most people object to.

    Gordon Brown, Mandy and their cronies are PROVEN mendacious, incomptent, untrustworthy, control freaks.

    You can drone on all you like about the Record, but many of us voters are willing to gamble that Cameron and his lot can not possibly be worse than Labour……and if they are, I am sure that we can rely on Guido to take them to task.

  • matthew bond

    A great blog. You are right. TB faced a great deal of scrutiny and had to do a lot of work, for better or worse, reforming the Labour Party. Cameron has had to do nothing other than look posh and peddle platitudes. But I think the real problem has been the soft left and the BBC. Of course the Telegraph and the Mail are going to give Cameron an easy ride and the FT has been clearly pro-Brown. What I have been surprised at is how easy the Guardian etc and BBC have been on DC. I think it is because journalists are not randomly selected from all British social backgrounds and disproportionately represent the most privileged strata. They are hooked into Cameron’s status mongering crap. The other factor is the monumental macroeconomic policy shift Brown and Darling introduced. They rejected the consensus that there was no alternative and the 81 Howe budget was good for the economy. You can still see guys like Andrew Marr blinded by 80s orthodoxy each time he has a love in, oops I mean interview, with George Osborne.

  • stephen richardson

    Hey Alastair,
    That post has really made my week. Its a great summary of the media today.
    I really appreciate the effort you put into the blog. Hope to see you some time on the regents canal near primrose hill.

  • Liambyrne\’s teaboy

    AC – you forget your own unique contribution to NuLab’s downfall – there is a direct correlation between the public’s alienation with your antics (dodgy dossier and all) and NuLab’s slide in popularity – that combined with the incompetence of the primementalist and his mates in the bunker (economic mess and all) and the growing realisation that many of NuLab’s so called ‘achievements’ were built on shifting sands, form over substance. Well done you – perhaps you should have just stuck to writing for porn mags.

    If the media are guilty of bias its possibly because they are reflecting the majority of the public’s view. (Funnily enough I always think Marr is a little too soft with labourite careerists like Milliband – god help Nulab if he ever became leader – like a lighthouse in the desert – bright but of no practical use to anyone).

    Hey ho – Liam’s calling – better go and make sure I’ve got the prima dona’s coffee ready.


    Teaboy (former labour voter)

  • Em

    The media want DC to be the next PM and that’s all there is to it. I’ve noticed how they are treating him like “David Cameron PM-elect” already and I do think that part of their cheerleading particularly unprofessional.

    What I find heartening is the possibility that the electorate won’t be able to stomach this DC-media luv-in for another six to eight months. For how long can people look at the self-satisfied look on DC’s face and run to the medicine cabinet for anti-nausea tablets?

    Since we are talking about artifice, I’ll describe my gut reaction to DC’s “presence” or “aura” whatever you want to call it: to me David Cameron exudes some form of shady and weak charisma. He looks like an MBA who can barely contain his glee at just having sold a Ponzi to a poor old-age pensioner. I can’t help but to read a combination of unwarranted self-love and sleaze on his face. I don’t want that canary in his mouth to be the UK.

    Aside: thanks to you for, Alastair, I’ve discovered Eddie Izzard’s comedy which with I was not familiar. We were watching “Dressed to Kill” last night and there’s this bit about the Italians inventing fascism only half-heartedly because what they really like to do is to ride on their mopeds and say “ciao”. The cool, passing “ciao” is used throughout the routine and, not to associate Labour with fascism, but our troops do seem half hearted now, looking at all the hoopla around DC and more interested in riding off in a moped than fighting this.

    I’m a firm believer in Freud’s death wish and it seems individuals from the party, politicians and activists alike, are oscillating between half-heartedness (ciao) to a fervent (if unconscious) desire to crash and burn.

  • Helene Davidson

    Are you the same Alastair Campbell that worked, and spun, for Tony Blair? Just checking….

  • Scott

    Hi from Australia. I am currently reading THE Diaries. It is quite apparent that TB and of course AC had to go through the gauntlet. Where I am it is currently the same albeit on a different side of the political spectrum. I recognise so many similarities with how the current Prime Minister of Australia was elected and how Cameron most likely will be. Anyway I also learning what needs to happen from a credible opposition in terms of policy work. For that I am indebted. Now worries!

  • Charlie

    @EM “What I find heartening is the possibility that the electorate won’t be able to stomach this DC-media luv-in for another six to eight months. For how long can people look at the self-satisfied look on DC’s face and run to the medicine cabinet for anti-nausea tablets?”

    You will get used to it. Many people felt exactly the same way about TB.

  • Stu

    Bit rich you whining about spin doctors

  • geordieblue

    there is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads onto fortune…GB had his chance and ballsed it up. I’ve got more chance of going under 3 hours for the marathon than he has of getting in next April. Shouldn’t he step down now with honour?

  • Alan Quinn

    Interesting that no one really went after Osborne after he said he would cancel the Typhoon aircraft, the A400M transport plane and the new carriers.
    When asked how much would be saved by axing them he “didn’t know”. He didn’t again know if penalty clauses would be invoked by cancellation. Amateurish from a supposed future chancellor.
    Imagine if Labour in opposition had said that….”Labour raises the white flag”….”100,000 defence jobs at risk” etc etc in the tory press.

    The respected economist David Blanchflower who predicted the recession and was a member of the MPC has said we need to keep spending and historically the deficit isn’t that bad and could be paid for by low interest loans.
    Why Gordon and Co are now trying to out cut the tories is mystifying.
    On the economy Brown and Darling have got it about right, bailing out the banks, quantative easing and spending.They have made sure that the worst financial crisis in 60yrs has been averted. Cameron and Osborne got it wrong, opposing every Labour decision.
    Ally have a word and tell them to show up that pair of jokers for what they are. Attack! Attack!, Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack….. as we used to chant at Man United.

  • @jlocke13

    Stop Press…..Alastair Campbell complains about media spin….I find it amusing that AC accuses DC of doing exactly what he would advise him to do….
    How about complaining about the labour bias of the so called unbiased BBC…

  • ollie

    Lol. You have to admire Campbell’s incredible cheek.

    Anyway, here’s a quote I saw earlier on another site –

    “There is no way Derren Brown is going to control the nation. It’s bad enough that we have that Gordon Brown doing the same thing. We do not need another Brown trying to achieve something equally as stupid.”

    You know why Brown is so maligned? Simple – he has no style or substance.

  • Ann

    Great blog, even though I don’t read newspapers, don’t trust the media, not that interested in politics but really enjoy your blogs, even though I’m waiting for an email!! Have a great weekend.

  • john

    To take The Times alone, you boasted in your diaries of having their political editor, Philip Webster, in your pocket. You also fed stories to Tim Hames and Tom Baldwin.
    Frankly, you’re wasting your time whining about Cameron-worship in the media. It’s a natural, cyclical force in politics – the yearning for change.

  • Andrew BOD


    Surely this is how FPTP works. You get two or three attempts in Government, the public and the media eventually get fed up with you and want a change. And no matter how competent you are (not saying they are,) everybody still wants a change. This is how it works.

    Labour got to play Punch for 13 years, and now they’ll get a chance to play Judy.

    Until we change this stupid system, and our politicians learn to collaborate, we will be having this same chat in another 13 years.

  • gary Enefer

    Dear Alastair

    Wasn’t it you and New Labour that created this problem? When Neil Kinnock fell in the sea off Brighton beach there was a clear divide between Labour and the Tories. Your strategy was – if you want to hide in the forest look like a tree,so you designed Labour to look like the Tories and nothing has been the same since.Both DC and GB seem scared stiff to keep up appearances only to me. Alistair Darling seems to be doing a good job.
    best wishes

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