A subtle change of Tone

Tony the statesman, Tony the family man, Cherie the mother of mercy ... there's been hardly a hiccup in the purring PR machine since Labour took office. How do they do it? By Fran Abrams
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Relatively speaking, it had not been the best of days for the new government. "Cherie to get Secretaries on the State!" The Sun had shouted, revealing that Fiona Millar, partner of Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell, was to be part-time paid assistant to the Prime Minister's wife along with another aide, Roz Preston.

The Mail had echoed: "Cherie's Angels on the Public Payroll." The paper, along with The Times, had also reported dark dealings within the Downing Street machine over a possible civil service role for Mr Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell.

The new administration's response was nothing if not symbolic. At tea- time ITN's political editor, Michael Brunson, was beamed live from the Number 10 rose garden into living rooms across the country. Cherie Booth, he revealed, was to open up Downing Street and to throw a party for disadvantaged children.

It was an inspired move. In just a few moments of prime-time television that morning's niggling, slightly sleazy tone was displaced by a warm, cuddly story about Ms Booth, a camera-shot which gave the entire nation an insider's glimpse of the seat of power and a picture of copious quantities of flowers. Everything in the new Labour nursery was bright, breezy and blooming, it said.

As the first weeks of the new administration have unravelled, the media machine which ran so faultlessly throughout the general election has continued to purr. No great surprises there, of course. But what is interesting is a subtle change of tone in its ambient hum.

Tony Blair, the young pretender, the family man with an attractive-but- mute wife and three nigh-on invisible children, has begun ever-so-subtly to re-emerge as Tony Blair the President. Cherie may be still mute but she is more active, taking a high-powered lawyers' day out with Hillary Clinton and masterminding her rose garden jamboree. The children have suddenly emerged into the limelight too, Chelsea-style, first on the Number 10 doorstep on May 2 and then for a while last week supposedly en route to Balmoral for a summer holiday.

The Sun broke the story about the First Family's planned three-day house party with the Windsors. "The Queen, who loves children, has ordered her staff to treat the Blair youngsters like members of the Royal Family," the paper gushed. Inside, the "Famous Five" Royal and Prime Ministerial children were splashed across a whole page with details of their shared enthusiasms for gladiators, the Spice Girls and Manchester United. By Friday, the party was over, as the Sun reported that the Blairs, though "touched" by the Queen's offer, had turned it down on the grounds that it would interrupt the children's new school term.

The suggestion that the new Premier and his family were already practically on barbecueing and mini-golfing terms with the Royals may have been close to fantasy, but it was positive fantasy for the new regime and it cannot have hindered the Prime Minister's planned transition from opposition leader to statesman.

Just a few months ago, before The Sun switched to Labour, such warm coverage would have been unthinkable. But last week the paper twice splashed on positive new Labour exclusives. Its Royal tale had been preceded by the news that the Blairs' Islington house was for sale - at a pounds 240,000 mark- up on the price they paid. But instead of seizing the chance to run a story on how the new Prime Minister was to profit from the Tories' house- price boom, the angle it took was purely human: "They longed to stay in their friendly street. But they accept they must quit the North London house to avoid huge security problems now Mr Blair is PM," the paper explained.

There is more to the media image of Prime Minister Blair than this soft- focus family-values stuff, though. The daily meetings chaired by Peter Mandelson and attended by about 15 of the Premier's most senior media advisers are much taken up with ensuring that he comes across as strong, decisive and authoritiative.

"The attack that we feared was that these guys after 18 years didn't know what they were about and weren't up to it," an aide explained. Instead, he added, the Tories had decided to go for Labour on the tack that it was arrogant and that it was pushing its reforms through too fast.

This, the Blair camp has decided, is good news. Too right we are doing the things we said we would, they respond. Is it not odd that the Opposition attacks the Prime Minister for being in control?

There have been hints that the accusations of arrogance - for instance in reforming Prime Minister's Questions without consulting MPs first - are being taken on board, though.

Ask any spin doctor how it is going and they will tell you about "Tony's" decision to walk to Parliament, his plan to host question-and-answer sessions with the public every month and the unbounded enthusiasm of Labour's "focus groups" for the new government. "Tony" may be thoroughly in charge, they suggest, but he is still a man of the people. He will never allow himself to become aloof and out of touch like the Conservatives did.

The planned image, though, is new, modern, reforming, young. As one adviser put it, mantra-like: "We must not lose sight of why we won the election. We must keep communicating. The many not the few. Leadership not drift. The future not the past."

The jury may be out on the allegation of arrogance, but on the levels of control now operating there is little doubt. Speeches have always been vetted by Number 10, but now interview requests and other announcements are all funnelled through its co-ordinating operation.

The morning meetings have slipped back from 7am to 9am since the election campaign ended, but they still serve a similar purpose. The issues of the day are discussed, and where necessary "the line" is circulated to ministers and officials. New Labour has become famous for its slick PR operation, and it is not going to relinquish its crown now.

It is easy to get carried away, of course, with the myth that Peter Mandelson invented spin-doctoring and left everyone else floundering in his wake. It is more than 50 years since William Joyce as "Lord Haw Haw" spread black propaganda in wartime Britain through radio talks supposedly broadcast from Germany. And just listen to the resonance of Labour's first television election broadcast, a supposedly spontaneous but in fact carefully-rehearsed grilling of a minister.

"You may be wondering," the interviewer began, "how it happens that someone so well dressed, well educated and well-off as Sir Hartley Shawcross comes to be in the Labour Party. What's your answer to that, Hartley?"

"Well, my answer, Chris, is why on earth shouldn't I be? It may be unusual to find a working man in the Tory party, but there are tens of thousands of people like me in the Labour Party."

It is part of the spin, of course, that media manipulation has just been invented. But there is rare praise for Labour from an older master of the game, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham.

"It has been a very good start," he concedes. "But there are criticisms that I could make. I think they have been able to demonstrate that they have been decisive, active, young and vigorous. What I worry about is what they are going to look like in two years' time when they have mined their entire programme. You can't just conduct your presentation for today in government, you have to conduct it for the next year and the next five years."

By that time, the media euphoria surrounding the new government is certain to have worn off and a certain amount of muck will certainly have been thrown at Tony Blair's front door. If his team stays lively enough to keep scooping it up and putting it in the rose garden, he might just surviven

Arts & Features are on pages 12 & 13 of the broadsheet

Comments