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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us