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

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The Independent Online
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".