Labour's spin doctors hit back at a bad press

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MONTHS after Labour's honeymoon with the media, a very public divorce was declared last week in a Commons room overlooking the Thames. Unable to suppress his irritation, Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's spokesman, told the press corps what he thought of coverage of the Robin Cook affair. The explosion, which was soon the subject of Westminster gossip, was the polite version.

Listen, for example, to one of Mr Campbell's allies: on the Guardian ("always whingeing and whining"), on the BBC's coverage of the Cook affair ("The journalist should have been sacked - they would have done better with Claire Rayner"), or the press in general ("obsessed with trivia"). For Downing Street, the apotheosis came last Monday at another briefing when journalists devoted themselves to questions about the refurbishment of Cherie Blair's kitchen. There was one gem about the make of the hob: "Could we confirm that it was German?"

If the Government is to be believed, the messenger should not only be shot but bludgeoned too. So how has it all gone wrong for the masters of spin? Mr Campbell believes that newspapers have yet to accustom themselves to the post-election climate. Because John Major's government was in near- permanent crisis and the last election campaign effectively ran for two years, newspapers came to expect daily political drama.

Despite new support in the Murdoch empire, Labour has trouble with traditional sympathisers. It resents the Guardian because of the power of the paper's reach to Labour activists. It has, complained one source last week "never supported what Tony Blair wanted to do, always trying to cause trouble and be critical. It is highly slanted which means that we cannot get the message out to our members except through direct mail".

The party's worries on this score have been exacerbated by a more critical line recently from the Mirror, regarded as the traditional bastion of Labour support. The paper ran hard with the story of Mr Cook's sacking of his former secretary, Anne Bullen, for example.

As leader of the Opposition Mr Blair and his team could control not only policy formation but also public pronouncements on Labour's behalf. As one insider put it, "in opposition it is right and proper to concentrate on the message and be very disciplined. In government you have departments which are largely autonomous units".

The Government is stepping up its efforts to co-ordinate press activity through a new Strategic Communications Unit, employing two national newspaper journalists. Yet even this group seems unsure whether it should be dealing with day-to-day activities or long-term strategy.

The Government has also suffered from too great an emphasis on message rather than substance. On occasion, most notably over welfare reforms, it has devoted more energy to thinking about headlines than detailed policy.

The Conservatives, so long on the receiving end of vicious media attack, are sitting back and enjoying the sport. "Labour," said a senior party source, "have brought it upon themselves by attempting to manipulate the media. Their complaints are driven by the fact that they are having a difficult time."