Media: Has this story got the right spin, Mr Blair?

Number 10 plans to bypass Fleet Street to present its own image of Government policy.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE Independent asked Downing Street yesterday for an interview with Tony Blair about his plans to bypass Fleet Street in order to get his message over to the public, one wag at Number 10 quipped: "I think we will bypass you on this one. But there's a good piece in Cosmopolitan about it!" The jokes over, the Downing Street man went on to explain that press reports of Blair adopting a new media strategy to combat a Fleet Street obsessed with trivia were rather overblown.

As he spoke, however, the Prime Minister was giving some credence to the theory by appearing on ITV's Richard and Judy Show. There was a certain irony in Blair's hour-long appearance on "tabloid TV" the day after Downing Street criticised the "dumbed down" national newspapers for focusing on "trivia, ministers' travel expenses, comment and soap opera".

Asked on Richard and Judy if his decision to take part in the programme was to bypass the "spin" that papers put on what he said, Blair replied: "It is not a question of bypassing the newspapers because we deal through the newspapers the whole time. I do think it is a good idea for people in my position to try and communicate with people directly and to try and talk about things that really interest people in terms of policies and programmes of the Government. And sometimes you can do that in better ways than just the traditional ways."

For example, ministers have been advised to make greater use of women's magazines and journals aimed at the ethnic minorities. Downing Street's Strategic Communications Unit now has three full-time staff dedicated to these two areas. There will be Commons statements by ministers in an attempt to reach the audiences who watch live TV and radio programmes, without the "filter" of the national press.

The seeds of the new strategy were planted in December when Blair was frustrated that newspapers were dominated by rows over Germany's demands for tax harmonisation in the EU. Downing Street spinmeisters were worried that the broadsheet newspapers were following the so-called "tabloid agenda" set when The Sun branded Oskar Lafontaine, the German Finance Minister, "the most dangerous man in Europe".

Alastair Campbell, Blair's influential and trusted press secretary, told colleagues that this was an example of Westminster-based journalists coalescing around a "centre of gravity", which he says they do during any running story. This drowned out the Government's message on other issues, and Blair resolved to appeal "over the heads" of the press to the people.

But the Government's attempts to regain the initiative were shortlived. Its "Black Christmas" of resignations was followed by a spate of stories about the allegedly lavish lifestyle of ministers such as Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet's enforcer, who took trips on Concorde. Campbell does not deny that the Mandelson affair was a "real story". But he is furious about the "Concorde" stories, complaining of little press attention to key elements of the Government's programme once there is no political controversy, citing the national minimum wage, the New Deal programme for the jobless, and the working families tax credit.

So Downing Street has urged ministers to promote such activities in new ways. Campbell was delighted with the coverage in regional newspapers last week after a briefing given by Blair and David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, on the New Deal.

"People believe what they read in their regional newspapers more than what they read in the national press," a Downing Street insider insisted yesterday. And so the other reason for the "new strategy": Campbell hopes that, by making Fleet Street's behaviour an issue, it will be more inclined to cover "good news" government initiatives.

So is it just another attempt to soften up the media? To be fair, Campbell and co have a point about the "dumbing down" of political coverage. The Independent is now the only newspaper with a page devoted to Parliament. Many newspapers are more interested in personalities than policies, though this is partly because there are so few policy differences between the main parties.

As a former political editor of the Daily Mirror, Campbell knows bad news will usually drive out the good. The Tories have not yet discovered the art of opposition, and so the press is helping to fill the vacuum - a perfectly legitimate function in a democratic society. So the Government should not protest too much. As the next general election approaches, Labour will be courting Fleet Street just as assiduously as it did before the 1997 poll, when winning over The Sun was Campbell's greatest coup.

As Enoch Powell said, politicians who complain about the media are like sailors who moan about the sea. Even one Cabinet minister who is critical of the press's behaviour admitted: "Frankly, the politicians get the press they deserve, and vice versa. We are as bad as each other."

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