Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

How Tony Blair's PR team got their television strategy all wrong
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The Independent Online

So, it's all over - Labour got back, but with a bloody nose. But what sort of election was it for the broadcasters? The first thing to say is that it was impossible for one person to watch and listen to more than just a tiny fraction of the election coverage, so my highlights of the campaign are inevitably subjective and based only on the broadcasts I saw and heard.

So, it's all over - Labour got back, but with a bloody nose. But what sort of election was it for the broadcasters? The first thing to say is that it was impossible for one person to watch and listen to more than just a tiny fraction of the election coverage, so my highlights of the campaign are inevitably subjective and based only on the broadcasts I saw and heard.

One thing I am sure everyone would agree on was that the first two weeks of the campaign were the most boring in history. The only interesting thing was watching Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pretending to be buddies, when only a few weeks earlier we knew they hated each other.

The election campaign came to life when someone on high decided to start leaking selective documents about the war in Iraq. I'd love to know who was doing it, because they did it with such consummate skill, I would have sworn it had marks of a Campbell PR campaign, if he hadn't been working for Labour and the Prime Minister.

The first leak was in the Mail on Sunday and resulted, the following day, in my first broadcasting high point of the campaign, which was John Humphrys' interview with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Straw refused to answer any meaningful questions, tried to claim that Blair and the Government had been cleared on four occasions by four inquiries, and that it was time to move on from Iraq.

Humphrys was having none of it and confronted Straw. It was a brilliant interview and was Humphrys at his very best. Given his reluctance to answer the questions put to him, Straw was, quite properly, well and truly kebabed, and Humphrys answered both those who dislike his style of interviewing and those who believe the Today programme has gone soft since the Hutton inquiry. From that day onwards, the election coverage was largely dominated by Iraq, despite desperate attempts by Labour to quash it, and, of course, the evidence from the exit polls showed that a lot of Labour MP's lost their seats because of it.

My second highlight of the campaign came later that week, when more of the Attorney General's legal opinion on the war was leaked. Channel 4 News claimed it as an exclusive, which it was only because of a strange decision at the BBC. To be fair, the material was given to Jon Snow at Channel 4 in the early hours of the morning and the BBC only received it mid-afternoon, but they took the decision not to use it on the Six O'clock News and, instead, save it for their 10pm bulletin. By then, the story had become a Channel Four exclusive, so instead of having the best story of the campaign, the BBC had egg all over its face. To be fair, Snow deserved the praise he got, as Channel 4 News has led the broadcast media in exposing the Government over Iraq.

But the best television event of the campaign was, without doubt, the special Question Time played in peak time on BBC1. David Dimbleby, the old master, was at his very best, as, for the first time, the three leaders were grilled by an audience in one programme. For once, Blair's PR strategists got it totally wrong. By letting him go on third, they not only exposed him to an audience which, by then, was warmed up and ready for confrontation, they also exposed him to a very hot studio where the lights had been on full for more than an hour. Blair sweated in more ways than one.

Oddly, the high point of Blair facing the public on Question Time had nothing to do with Iraq, but came with a woman questioning the Prime Minister about why she couldn't get an appointment with her doctor. What it exposed was that the Prime Minister was completely ignorant of all the tricks people working in the public sector use in order to get round so many of the targets that his Government dream up. It was a truly revealing moment.

What I'd really love to know is did this just happen by chance, or did the programme's producers know what the woman was going to ask in advance? Certainly, Dimbleby turned it into a story when he asked the Prime Minister if he knew that this sort of thing was happening.

So, they were my top three moments, although the Newsnight panel in Milton Keynes came a close fourth. Asked to look at a series of video clips, and electronically register their approval or disapproval of what they were watching, the indicator nearly disappeared off the screen with the disdain expressed when President Bush was shown with Blair talking about Iraq. Good job George W wasn't a candidate in this election.

It's time freelancers got a break

Well done Michael Grade for speaking out about the way some independent production companies treat their freelance staff, something I've written about here in the past. The BBC chairman made it very clear that he regarded it as unacceptable that some independent producers worked people ridiculously long hours, paying them very little money.

When he was chief executive at Channel 4, Grade introduced spot audits to make sure independents weren't exploiting employees and it's clear he wants the same sort of thing at the BBC and that Mark Thompson agrees with him. Perhaps it's time for all the main broadcasters in Britain to lay down some minimum terms and conditions that independents would have to adhere to if they are to win commissions. Of course a lot of independent companies are good employers, but there are too many stories of people, particularly youngsters, being horribly exploited. Perhaps it's time to name and shame the offenders.

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