The quest for the "widest possible audience" reached a new pitch last week when Mr Blair may have become the first British prime minister to write, "exclusively", of course, for a free sheet. An article chronicling the Government's achievements was published in The Wharf, and distributed for nothing to workers in Canary Wharf, a comparatively small but, including as it does the staffs of various banks and media groups, influential readership. A historic moment, then, and one that prompts the thought that Mr Blair may be in danger of devaluing the currency of prime ministerial journalism.
Time was when it was a rare and prestigious honour for a newspaper and its readers to be granted a piece by a prime minister, or a senior cabinet minister. It is now a commonplace. Yesterday morning alone, both Gordon Brown and George Robertson managed to secure sizeable pieces (in The Daily Telegraph and The Sun, respectively). The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has also been successful in getting his key messages across. But Mr Blair is clearly first amongst equals when it comes to reaching out to the "widest possible audience".
Trawling the newspaper databases shows that Mr Blair has written for every national newspaper since he came to power. An estimated total of 166 articles represents a prodigious output for any professional politician, let alone one running the country and leading the free world. In fact, Tony Blair's tally of by-lines compares well with folk who have to write columns for a living, such as Richard Littlejohn (179 in the same period), Keith Waterhouse (185), or Suzanne Moore (146).
No one is being pious here - The Independent has carried 10 pieces by the Prime Minister since his election, including a lengthy essay on The Third Way. But his output is very much focused to the mass-market tabloids. One wouldn't want to read too much about New Labour's relationship with the Murdoch press into this, but The Sun is the biggest single recipient of Blair verbiage (30 pieces), followed next by The Mirror (25), the News of the World (13) and then The Express (12).
One might wonder where Mr Blair finds the time and energy to devote himself to this writing. The truth, of course, is that he doesn't. Even Downing Street doesn't attempt to maintain that fiction, but they do claim that he sees everything that is published in his name (which certainly must help to keep his red boxes nice and full).
To help Mr Blair, there exists the "Strategic Communications Unit" within No 10, and in particular, the services of two former journalists: David Bradshaw, a former political correspondent for The Mirror, and Philip Bassett, a former industrial editor of The Times. There is also, of course, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, or Chief Sub, Alastair Campbell, a former Mirror and Today journalist with a famously sure touch for the tabloid style (which is not so much New Labour, New Britain as New Sentence, New Paragraph).
According to Nick Jones, author of Sultans of Spin, Campbell is quite straightforward about Bradshaw's role: "David Bradshaw will be like a departmental word machine. If anyone wants 600 words on X,Y or Z, whether it's The Western Mail or any other paper, then David can do it." According to Jones, after the 1998 budget, articles appeared in 120 local newspapers under the by-line of the Chancellor, and each tailored to local issues. It was rumoured that Bradshaw had written them all. (The tables here give only an estimate for the national and some regional newspapers.)
It is worth mentioning that Bradshaw and Bassett both have the status of special adviser, and are thus paid for by the taxpayer. Under a code of conduct to which Mr Blair agreed shortly after the new government took office, the special advisers could engage in activity that involved the "development of policy and its effective presentation", which just about covers the lot. Assistance on that scale is not available to William Hague or to Paddy Ashdown (I should know, I worked for him). This may account for their only managing to place 46 and 33 articles respectively.
Key to the Government's communications strategy is the targeting of different readers. It is a painstaking operation. Take the Sunday People, 2 May 1999. In the main national edition, Mr Blair's ghost writers skilfully "topped" a planned piece on the war in Kosovo with a few paragraphs on the recent nail-bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho. But the Scottish edition carried a different piece by Mr Blair: "You can make a choice for a stronger Scotland." For the Welsh edition, there was a different one again: "You're voting for a brighter future for Wales." The Scottish and Welsh versions contained some of the same proud claims about the minimum wage and child benefit, but were still substantially different in content and style. Whatever else, the Prime Minister's pieces are are not carelessly put together.
All this effort is, of course, to a purpose. The prime ministerial coin may be being devalued, but it is, like all debasements of a currency, advantageous, not to say fun, in the short run. The number of pieces by senior ministers is part of the strategy to go "over the heads" of the political journalists and the commentators, and to put a case directly to the voter, with no mediation by mischievous hacks. It is no bad thing to hear the message of the politician directly once in a while. But the novelty can wear off, and the reader may find that familiarity means that he does not feel, as once he might, so privileged to read what are apparently Tony's own words.
Many notable politicians have been excellent journalists. Winston Churchill was a war correspondent during the Boer war. Michael Foot was editor of Tribune. Nigel Lawson was editor of The Spectator. But only Benjamin Disraeli conflated politics and journalism to the extent that Mr Blair has. Disraeli, a man who understood strategic communications, became so depressed about the way the press traduced the Tories that he set up his own Conservative paper, The Press (6d every Saturday). But, although Disraeli confessed to the Commons that "I am myself a `gentleman of the press'", he also was at pains to say that "it is my greatest honour to be a member of this House, in which all my thoughts and feelings are concentrated".
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