Election '97: Why the politicians worry about 'Today'

Nine minutes past eight yesterday morning and in the Today programme studio Gordon Brown is worried. And he's not even there.

His gravelly Scots voice is disembodied and emerging from a speaker connected by landline with the BBC's Westminster offices in Millbank. Most senior politicians prefer a face-to-face interview, with the exception of Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, who uses a radio car because he claims not to get out of bed before 8am.

"We've spent a lot of time on this economic research," says the wall- mounted speaker to the Today editor, Jon Barton. "I'd hate to see it go unreported." The report he is talking about is an OECD survey that Labour claims shows Tory Britain tumbling down the economic performance league.

Today knows the shadow Chancellor is worried. They had Charlie Whelan, his media minder, calling up the day before trying to make sure that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is the lead item in Mr Brown's interview - at 10 minutes past eight with the co-presenter John Humphrys.

As it turns out he was right to be worried - in the handover meeting between Today's day and night teams the evening before, it had already been decided that Mr Brown is on to speak about Europe in the aftermath of Jacques Santer's intervention in the election.

The entire interview is composed of Mr Humphrys trying to get Mr Brown to express a Labour view on the single currency. The OECD doesn't get a mention until a later item.

It is a standard day of spin doctoring and political pressure for the nation's flagship morning news programme.

"I thought, when I joined, it would be endless harassment by Mandelson and Lewington," said Mr Barton, about the respective Labour and Tory party chief spin doctors. "But while we've had strong complaints about the parties it is not minute-by-minute spinning."

Mr Barton believes that the live and flexible nature of Today makes it less amenable to the spin doctor's art than television news, which deals in pre-recorded "packages" of footage.

He said: "The programme is long and can do several interviews on a subject. That way several points of view can be conveyed in one programme and they stay off our back."

He thinks the spin doctors feel there is more to be gained by trying to influence the choice of soundbite or footage used by lunchtime news programmes because those clips can be run throughout the rest of the day, on various television news shows, creating as they go the agenda of that day.

James Naughtie, one of the Today presenters, agreed: "There is an initial feeling to an interview that means it can't be spun. Spin doctoring has become an obsession that's completely out of proportion. Most of it is by people who want to write lots of self-aggrandising books after the election."

But while Today is dismissive of politicians' attempts to manipulate its agenda, yesterday's other big political interview smelled at the very least of opportunism.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was booked to come on the programme to discuss a "major crime initiative". But Mr Howard's crime proposal, when eventually revealed to a sleepy nation at nine minutes past seven, was patently not much of a story. Mr Major would propose a target 10 per cent cut in crime to be achieved by a lot of things that had already been announced. "You're not introducing anything new today then," was Mr Humphrys' sceptical response to the "major crime initiative".

What is less clear is who exactly is the opportunist. The crime initiative was largely a fig-leaf for Mr Howard, a right-wing Tory leadership contender, to get on Today and bash Mr Santer. But Today was happy to have Mr Howard talking about Europe because he had disagreed with Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, at the weekend on the Amsterdam summit's implications for British sovereignty.

Two small interviews an hour apart, probably lost in the election's frenzy of nothingness, but they nicely illustrate why Mr Howard is such a feared political operator, and that Millbank's spin patrol yet have something to learn.

Michael Howard was giving Today a solid Europhobe-party-split story. Gordon Brown, in the words of John Humphrys, "wanted to come on and bash the Tories with a load of dodgy statistics".

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Sport
Husain Abdullah returns an interception off Tom Brady for a touchdown
nflLeague has rules against 'sliding to ground on knees'
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to teach Furthe...

Primary teachers required for schools in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers requ...

Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

£18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style