Media: How to woo the Tory press
The secret of winning press influence is to appeal to the personal interests of key reporters and columnists.
Tuesday 16 March 1999
The Treasury spiked his guns by leaking a line on the ending of tax relief for maintenance payments to the Saturday papers, but it illustrated how the press's political coverage can be subservient to the opinions - and the bank accounts - of individual journalists.
The journalist in question was from a Labour-supporting paper, which shows how much more fluid relations between the press and the Government have become. The world is more complex than it once was, thanks to New Labour's efforts with titles and specific journalists.
Legend has it that the Labour Party lost the 1992 general election because of John Smith's shadow Budget. I well remember the day of the launch, and the general belief that it was a total triumph, which was how most papers reported it at first.
Us spin-doctors proudly went round telling everyone that eight out of 10 people would be better off. But this did not include the political journalists and commentators, all of whom would be worse off. And so, the myth goes, after John Smith's announcement, the Lobby hacks sat down and worked out their own tax position should Labour win, and from that day on, they were determined that we wouldn't.
New Labour realised it was vitally important to win over the so-called Tory press, or at least neutralise some of their wildest excesses.
It was obvious to anyone that the country's biggest-selling paper, The Sun, would be the first target. The paper had been Neil Kinnock's biggest tormentor, but had grown tired of the Tories under Major. Some trade union leaders had recognised the importance of The Sun years ago. They knew that it was what their members read.
So Bill Jordan, of the engineering union, was writing for that paper when my friend Alastair Campbell was still writing pornography for Forum. Despite a rearguard action by some of the journalists, including the political editor, The Sun came out for Tony Blair, but significantly not for New Labour.
There was as much likelihood that the Daily Mail would support Labour as there is of Jack Cunningham cycling to work. Who will ever forget the headline "Labour's Dirty Dozen", a crude communist smear by political reporter Tony Bevins - now a fully paid-up member of the Alastair Campbell fan club. Like The Sun, the Mail had lost faith in the Tories, and while it would never support Labour, they were not in the mood to do much damage.
Before the election, I met the top Mail team, including the late Lord Rothermere, with Gordon Brown and his adviser, Ed Balls, to persuade them of our case. The main area of concern to Lord Rothermere was not what Labour may do to the economy, or our plans for trade union legislation, but what we were going to do about pets' passports.
He had a dog and the quarantine laws meant he could not easily take it with him on holiday. Gordon and I were flummoxed, we had no idea what our policy was. Fortunately, Ed, whose parents live in Italy and have a dog, did. He told Lord Rothermere that dog passports were a priority for New Labour. I'm convinced that that spin helped in preventing the Mail from doing its worst.
The other Tory supporting paper is of course The Telegraph. Not much hope of them doing other than giving full support to the Tories. But even here you can make inroads. When we wanted to announce our tough new regime for the New Deal, whereby benefit would be lost if an offer of a job was not taken up, it was to The Daily Telegraph that we turned. In fact, they gave it more support than the Shadow Cabinet.
Looking at the coverage that the Budget got last week, you can tell that both the Mail and The Daily Telegraph have now fully reverted to type. If Gordon Brown had abolished income tax altogether, they would have attacked the Budget for not doing enough for marriage.
But it remains true that the politics of a paper are important when decisions are taken as to who should get given which story. The sensible targeting of different messages for different titles can result in all the papers supporting the same policy from different perspectives - the New Deal being a classic case.
But as I've shown, individuals can also be a great influence, not only newspaper owners, but also their employees.
When the Treasury first launched the new individual savings accounts - the ISA - which were designed to help the lower-paid to save, it had not bargained on how much money some political editors had invested in the Tessas and PEPs which were to be abolished.
The Evening Standard was the first to condemn the ISA, quickly followed by The Sun. It was particularly annoying that The Sun should take such a view as it was Sun readers who would benefit most, a point I made vigorously to the then Sun editor, Stuart Higgins. There was no doubt in my mind that someone's personal financial circumstances were being treated as more important than the politics of the paper.
But when trying to influence a political journalist, most time is spent wining and dining the political columnist rather than the political editor of a paper, because it produces a double benefit. If you influence the columnist, and thereby their opinion pieces, you are also influencing the broadcasters - who pay a lot more attention to columnists than to the spin put on news stories.
Each paper has their top man, for they are nearly all men. The Financial Times has Philip Stevens, who sometimes seemed to know more about what is going on in the Treasury than I did. It was his columns that forced the pace in Government on the Euro. Andy Marr now writes for both the New Labour Express and The Observer, and still manages to keep Tony Blair on his toes. Many people have missed The Independent's Don Macintyre while he has been off writing his biography of Peter Mandelson.
Over at The Times, Peter Riddell seems to write more than most, but he does at least understand economics, which is more than one could say for Peter Hitchens at The Express. In fact, there are few good right-wing scribes around at the moment but Peter Oborne is an exception, and I'm not saying that because he is taking me to Cheltenham races this week. The list would not be complete without Paul Routledge, known as Rantledge down at The Mirror, where Piers Morgan and his political team have changed the fortunes of the paper.
For years ,with a few honourable exceptions, the Fleet Street papers were known in Labour circles as the "Tory press". This is no longer the case because, just like politics itself, things are not black and white anymore. This new complex world means that the politics of a paper, and perhaps more importantly those of its writers, are more keenly monitored by the politicians than ever.
The writer was press secretary to Gordon Brown from 1993 to January 1999. His radio show, `Sunday Service', begins on 4 April on Radio 5 Live
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