Editors' no-brainer - sexy judges or dull old politics?

On The Press: Even quality papers have cut their coverage of the party conference

If you've never been to one it is hard to imagine what it's really like. I have been to many, but have taken cold turkey in recent years, and found it good for the liver and the sanity. More important, it is a useful reality check. To go to a political party conference is to enter a secure zone where you not so much remove your shoes as lose your links with the rest of humanity.

Political journalists, politicians even, usually go home, or somewhere, at night. In Manchester, Bournemouth or Brighton the conference is everything, as long as it lasts. In Westminster the political journalists co-exist with the politicians, and nobody else gets in the way. At the party conference others seek to get a piece of the experience.

So the politicians are joined by the party members and workers, and the political journalists are joined by their editors and columnists, sometimes even their managers. All these relationships are testing.

It is seductive and easy to convince yourself that for a few days you are in the only place where it is happening, at the epicentre of events. So when the two great moments come - Gordon's speech and Tony's speech - you feel the glow of the cup final ticket or the first night in the stalls. You are privileged to be where millions out there would love to be. Only they wouldn't. They are not giving it a thought.

Back in newspaper offices it is quiet because so many are away at conference. Those planning tomorrow's paper know that the must-read story of the week will be the two judges, sex and the cleaner. They also know that they will be getting calls from conference about coverage of the speech. Decisions are difficult. It used to be easier when papers assumed they had a duty to report certain events because of their importance - and major party conference speeches came into those categories. It was the "newspaper of record" concept and, to an extent, that included not only the upmarket papers. There would be reports of each conference debate and near verbatim texts of the leader's speech.

No more. Because speeches are broadcast live with Andrew Neil and Simon Mayo there is an assumption that those who want to hear them will. This disregards the fact that in the early afternoon most of this group will be working. But the BBC does its duty and the print media feel they can concentrate on the interpretation.

Politicians moan about the focus on personalities, but when the issue of the Labour conference wasabout who was going to be prime minister, such moans can hardly be convincing. The papers had to decide whether to give the speeches much coverage; they were mindful of their audiences, the presumed degree of their political interest, and their political persuasion.

So it was hardly surprising that on Brown day the Daily Express led on Romanian immigrants getting £8 flights to Britain, the Daily Star on Richard Hammond of Top Gear wanting his crash shown on TV and the Mirror on "My grief ... by killer dogs' mum". Even The Independent preferred women's rights in Afghanistan to Gordon Brown. And the papers that felt Brown's speech was important enough for the front page concentrated on Cherie's alleged "liar" remark about Gordon.

The Blair speech was given more prominence, and it was here the coverage reflected the politics of the paper. The serious papers all led on it, and played it straight. The more political tabloids, The Sun and Mirror, majored on Tony. It was "Blairwell" from the Mirror and "I did it my way" from The Sun.

The Daily Mail led not on Blair but on the right of Bulgarians and Romanians to come to Britain. They left it to columnist and former Telegraph editor Max Hastings to savage Blair. "Almost every word Blair spoke would have been perjury had he been on oath," was the quote across the top of the front page from a two-page mauling inside.

This week David Cameron will get the treatment. The Daily Telegraph will be the one to watch.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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