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Good luck to Number 10 on ‘lobby’ review. And a big NO to the other PR

Posted on 12 November 2009 | 2:11pm

Just had a couple of very nice days in Vienna. Beautiful city, really clean. Spotted one piece of litter in an early morning run round the first district, which is the government and business area.

I was there to speak to spokesmen and women and political advisors from all the main government departments and the political parties. A spin symposium, critics of political and government communications would doubtless call it. But governments and major institutions around the world are having to come to terms with a totally changed media landscape.

I did my usual stuff, set out how we tried to adapt to the changed landscape by being more strategic in our comms, sufficient to help win three general elections and – whatever the media like to say – stay in with a chance of winning a fourth despite all the problems and the baggage that a long period in power inevitably brings.

I was there on the day Number 10 announced a review of relations with the media.

Good luck! I think it is fair to say that every time we tried to improve channels of communication, and improve political debate, the general media response was ‘oh look, more spin.’

That went for putting briefings on the record, freedom of information legislation, the PM doing more extended interviews, or doing more daytime TV or ‘non-news media,’ and even when we instituted the monthly press conference. The problem with those, the Beeb’s Nick Robinson said, was that Blair got so good at them ‘they became boring.’

In other words, a PM communicating his own agenda on his own terms, and dealing with any question any journalist cares to ask … no thanks. Give us gaffes, splits, rows, sensation and anything on ‘our agenda’ instead.  

Other leaders used to ask TB ‘what on earth do you put yourself through those monthly press conferences for?’ This in addition to PMQs and TB becoming the first PM in history to go before select committees.

So I say ‘good luck’ in that rather worldweary tone because my experience of the political media is that whatever is tried, they will say it is not enough, or they will find something in it to carp and criticise.

To be fair to Simon Lewis, the current PM’s spokesman, he is at least trying to take the ‘lobby’ with him and his review has more journalists on it than representatives of the government.

That might work. But it does rather increase my fears that what emerges will suit the narrow interests of the Westminster media, which should never be confused with the interests of the public.

Where Number 10 is absolutely right is to realise that 24 hour news, the internet, blogs, youtube, twitter, facebook and all the rest have changed the media faster in recent years than at any time since the advent of the printing press and the invention of the wireless and the TV.

But journalists on the review need to be honest enough to admit the paradox that we have more media space than ever, but less genuine debate and less public understanding of major issues. And they have to admit they are every bit as much part of the problem as any politician or any spin doctor.

When I said this in an interview with an Austrian journalist, he appeared taken aback. To be fair, the Austrian media is not quite the feral beast we know and don’t particularly love in Britain.

But the real spin doctors are owners and editors with an agenda, and the journalists who follow their line. The Sun has given us a very good example of spin in recent days.

One final point from Austria … I had breakfast with representatives of the Social Democrats and the Conservatives who make up the Grand Coalition which currently forms the government.

Listening to them describe every day attempts to govern and to communicate has further strengthened my view that Proportional Representation would be a a disaster. One of those things that sounds great – ‘everyone will feel their vote matters’ – but risks ending up satisfying nobody.

  • Marjorie Smith

    Know what you mean about PR. Especially Single transferable Vote (STV) in regioal constituencies. Will only ensure that administrations only emerge AFTER the votes have been counted and AFTER much wheeling and dealing by politicians in backroom deals.
    The Alternative Vote system in single member coonstituencies has some appeal though. Would have stopped the worst excesses of Thatcherism in the 80’s and would have still left a labour landslide in 97 and 2001.

  • Salmondnet

    FPTP satisfies nobody who should be satisfied. Great for the MPs of the party who get elected, usually by no more than 25% of the electorate, and for those swing voters in marginals to whom the winning party must profer bribes, but offering very little to the electorate as a whole, even most of those who vote for the winning party.

    The compromises necessary to make PR work are more likely to lead to the greatest satisfaction for the greatest number, even if none of the factions within the political class get all the power they want. The commons tamed the monarch and the Lords more than a century ago. It is now time for the electorate to get their representatives under control. PR is the first step in doing this.

  • Malcolm Pearce

    I was at a speech you did a few months ago when you pointed out that these days you hardly see the politicians for more than 20 seconds on the news bulletins, because they have to have so much space for the so called experts telling you what they think. I wish you had never told me — I now shout at the news every night. I so do not care what they think. But I had not really noticed it before

  • Colin Devonport

    I do not agree with proportional representation, it creates bias towards weak government and allows fringe and sectarian parties to get a foot hold, where they would never be able to in a first past the post system.

    However I do believe that there is an argument for electing a ‘leader of the executive’ like a Mayor or Presdient without executive powers.

    Why without power you may ask, well my point is that any elected leader would be the voice for the Executive, she/he could be from any Party, or no Party at all.

    We could benefit from having someone with the gravitas to represent the Country both at home and abroad, without being tied to party lines.

    How would a leader be elected? First past the post, with voters having a second third choice in case there was no overall majority. Crutially there would be an escape clause where the Executive could force her/his removal in the event of misdemeanor or failing to meet the demands of the job.

    I would set a realistic test in that any candidate would have to have a certain percentage of the electorate to nominate them, and to be successful they would need 60% of the vote.

    My idea may sound purile, but sometime simple solutions give the best results.

  • Hilary Still

    PR? So you believe in public relations but not proportional representation? I agree re PR2 … how else did the BNP get seats in Europe? How else did Haider get a foothold in Austria? PR bad. First past the post good. And I agree with Ken Clarke hung parliament bad too

  • Ryan Martin

    Interesting you were off advising the Austrians on comms. I get the feeling they need advice closer to home

  • Andrew Williams

    Dear Mr Campbell,

    Thanks for a great blog. You write:

    “In other words, a PM communicating his own agenda on his own terms, and dealing with any question any journalist cares to ask … no thanks.”

    Following that, what are your thoughts on The Independent’s piece last week where they recalled that Peter Hitchens was never chosen by Blair to give a question, even when his was the only hand raised? That’s obviously not ‘any question any journalisr cares to ask’.

    Best wishes,

    Andrew

  • Marion

    Each electoral system has it benefits and problems, and a selection of supporters from various parties. I would like the cabinet and leader of the Commons to be elected from within the house. WITHOUT the party machinary meddling. I would genuinely to have the best person/people available to be running the country selected from the representatives which are chosen by the electorate.

  • Hazico

    Alistair,

    I find your blog fascinating, and I wish this issue would be aired more. I personally am sick and tired of feeling manipulated by the tabloid media, and sometimes the local press.It seems like a mincemeat machine- and perhaps it’s primary function is to entertain, not inform.(and to sell papers!) Sorry to state the obvious- but I think it’s become a real problem, in that perhaps circa 5 million Sun readers, and of the Daily Mail fraternity seem to dominate mainstream views?

    One gets so used to hearing tabloid headlines and spin, in the end I think the public either adopt quite extreme views, or switch off completely.This seems like alienation rather than engagement by the public….this is not what are forebears fought for!!

    I think our lives are dominated by TV, the internet, facebook etc, and trivia.Very depressing- I hope something wakes us all up soon.

    Somehow I feel we need an equivalent British “Obama” to lead and inspire- and to break through all the “crap.”
    Maybe that type of approach would remind people they do have some power of speech, and should exercise it.
    We are not sheep!!!I liked Peter Hain’s speech the other day- we need to hear more of that passion…

    I actually wish there could be a closer dialogue between the public and politicians, at a basic human level, without the intermediary of the media.They don’t always get it right- and often express highly cynical and patronising views!

    Otherwise politicians end up in camps and cabals behind closed doors, and the public feel suspicious, and rely on the papers to dictate everything.The expenses row was a good example.

    How this could be acheived is something to ponder over….but maybe the blogs on groups like Labour List are a start?

    Politicians might be surprised to learn that some of us are more sympathetic and open to ideas than portrayed by carriacatures in the media.

    However, I have to admit to being hooked on to Newsnight, Rado 4, the Guardian and Indepedent! (maybe I’m a stereotype too!!!

    Finally, I think it should be “all hands on deck” in the Labour party pre election! We all have something valuable to offer- and it is our country and our future at stake.

    Cheers, Jo.

  • Charlie

    @AC “But the real spin doctors are owners and editors with an agenda, and the journalists who follow their line. The Sun has given us a very good example of spin in recent days.”

    For an obviously quite intelligent man, you sometimes display an extraordinary lack of self-awareness. You and your little gang were happy enough to bask in the Sun’s limelight in 1997.

    Do you take us all for fools?

  • Roger Dodger

    Just noticed your site rather pretentiously calls itself ‘The Official Website’. How many unofficial websites of yours are there?

    There must be reams of tribute sites.

  • John Murphy

    Enjoyed hearing your programme about Jacques Brel on R4 today. I’m lucky inasmuch I can appreciate fully the French texts, I’ve lived in France for 35 years (Provence). They really are brilliant, as much when he attacks the ‘bourgeoisie’ as when he speak of his joy at the return of Mathilde, or getting drunk with his pal Jeff, or telling us about his physical and metaphorical’flat country’ in “le plat pays”. He really was a great artist and I understand fully the emotions of your erstwhile Belgian lorry driver.
    Concerning ‘le plat pays’ and Brel’s Flemish/French background, he sings this song beautifully in Flemish too and it sounds wonderful, makes you want to learn an otherwise seemingly uninteresting and not very useful language. If you haven’t heard it I heartily recommend it to you.

  • betty curtis

    Alistair

    I was excited when I heard these briefings could become televised. The Prime Minister has problems getting the media to write facts & this seems the answer but I would suspect the plug would be pulled on more than one occasion and the Tele would be plunged into darkness as journalists arrange a sensation for their “BREAKING NEWS TICKER” and we will be informed the story “WILL RUN FOR DAYS & DAYS”

  • Ted Keene

    Not enough people realise what a disaster Proportional Representation is. I live a lot in Italy where there is a daily round of wheeling, dealing and skullduggery between a 3 party coalition of centre right conservatives, nationalists for an independent North and ex-neo fascists. And that is just the government; the oppsition lines up as 5 or 6 divergent self interested groups with no common interest. The government is the equivalent of a coalition of Tories, Scottish Nationalists and the BNP, with the BNP calling all the shots just to keep the governement alive.
    By all means change to an alternative vote system for more fairness but avoid the PR disasters.

  • Anthony Edwards, Wales

    Mr. Campbell.
    I have just finished watching the BBC programme where you were interviewed by Mr. Neill.
    I was very interested in your campaign in relation to depression and mental illness.
    I have suffered(badly) against depression, anxiety and panic attacks since 2003.
    Thankfully i have overcome ALL symptoms, I am medication free.
    At 49 years of age I have embarked on a new career as a Professional Golfer.
    In 2009 I played on the Jamega Pro Tour, Celtic Pro Tour and Regional Qualifying for Turnberry 2009 for The Open Championship.
    Next Year my goals are : To play Jamega Pro Tour. To play Celtic Pro Tour. To play Regional Qualifying for the 2010 Open Championship, To WIN The Open Championship and to be the ONLY welshman in the European RYDER CUP TEAM in WALES 2010(none of the others will make it)…I have posted tis on Mr. Montgomeries’ website message board.(watch this space!).
    What a story it would make and I can assure you I will give it my all.
    Iff I can be any assistance in your campaign please let me know.
    Anthony

  • Hazico

    Hi,

    Following my previous blog about consensus of public opinions expressed in blogs and letters, please could check out the following as typical examples in our local press?

    DET(Derby), and on web:
    find “letters” on top tab(first click “news”.)

    “Is this a road we want to travel?”

    “Party loyalty can make you blind.”

    “Labour has failed on the big issues.”

    Perhaps if there is anyone living in the East Midlands who’d like to check out this regular kind of blogging- it might give an insight into how some sections of the public perceive politics?

    Thankyou.