Ian Burrell: Feeling chillaxed? Cameron's media man may not be after Ibiza holiday

Craig Oliver doesn't seem to acknowledge that the press heavily influences the TV news agenda
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The Independent Online

'He's only interested in the man on the street," is what they like to say about Craig Oliver, David Cameron's director of communications.

It would seem a healthy enough preoccupation for a Number 10 spin doctor, except that, according to the rest of the quip doing the rounds in the corridors of Westminster, the man in the street is the BBC political editor Nick Robinson, doing pieces to camera from Downing Street.

Oliver is a TV man. He was appointed to his job two years ago to replace Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World. And his interest in what Nick Robinson says on the 10pm BBC bulletin is probably increased by the fact that he used to edit the programme.

Now, Coulson was obsessed with the papers, especially The Sun and the Daily Mail. His appeal to Downing Street was that he is supposed to have an instinct for the thinking of the real man in the street, the sort of marginal voter who holds the balance of power in Redditch or Basildon (Coulson's home town).

"If Coulson had still been in charge," one of his old tabloid colleagues told me, "those pictures of Cameron would never have appeared". The reference was to the posed image of the Prime Minister and his wife at a restaurant table overlooking a bay in Ibiza, immediately after the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby. The Sun juxtaposed the two scenes beneath the headline "Hell Hol".

The Daily Mail, which never misses a chance to scorn Cameron's often clumsy attempts to hide his Old Etonian origins and reach out to the common man, asked: "Is it really wise to be chillaxing in Ibiza, Dave?"

The last time Mr Cameron went to Ibiza he flew on easyJet in what was presented as a thrifty gesture of solidarity with Britain's "squeezed middle". By coincidence, I was on the same flight to the White Isle.

The whole publicity stunt was shocking to behold. In the wee hours of the morning, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland sat in the front row with his kids (Samantha had flown on ahead), while the remaining passengers, from twenty-something hipsters to young families on package tours to San Antonio, were agog at the presence of celebrity. Publicists from easyJet walked the aisle encouraging customers to request autographs – as if the PM was their brand ambassador – on scraps of newsprint torn from free copies of the Daily Mail. Paul Dacre would have been so proud.

I don't remember seeing Craig Oliver, who I had interviewed on occasions during his BBC days, alongside the Prime Minister's bodyguards. Neither was he present on this recent trip to Ibiza – a Downing Street junior attended instead. A Balearic break wasn't really a story for television news – but to the tabloids it had the potential of a belting front page picture. And so it proved.

Mr Cameron might have been advised to avoid mentioning his trip to the party island at Prime Minister's Questions but he did, in an attempted joke about "policy-altering substances" on the opposition benches. In the ever-vigilant Mail, diarist Quentin Letts seized the opportunity to mock. "Mr Cameron pronounced the name of his holiday island 'Eye-beefer'," sniffed Letts. "A man of his social background would normally say 'I-bitha'. Has someone been on at him to de-posh himself?"

Would Craig Oliver care about this sort of coverage? Probably not. He doesn't seem to think the press wields much power – or acknowledge the fact that it continues to heavily influence the television news agenda. Instead he reminds civil servants about dwindling print circulation with comments like: "How many of you know what the Monday to Friday circulation of The Guardian is?"

Unsurprisingly, he is unpopular among the press lobby correspondents, who cover parliamentary proceedings.

Coulson might have prevented the Ibiza PR fiasco, simply because he would have foreseen potential negative front pages before the Prime Minister had even packed his favourite navy holiday shirt. He has ruffled feathers by writing a "10-point masterplan" for Cameron in GQ.

The piece must have been irritating for Craig Oliver, with its suggestion that the PM was not getting the best advice. Among the nuggets was Coulson's assertion that live election debates might be ditched. He unconvincingly claimed to have done a decent job at the last debates and suggested the Tories should keep the system. But I hear Cameron's team are unconvinced. They believe Ed Miliband is a good performer in longer debates and see the rise of Nigel Farage as a device for wriggling out of the 2010 format altogether.

The growing influence of TV in politics – vis-à-vis the press – was one of the key reasons Oliver was appointed. He had an eye for visuals and transformed the sets at ITV News and then the BBC. His value to Cameron now is unclear.

The Guido Fawkes political blog calls him the "Alan Partridge of strategic government communications". Like Partridge, the Number 10 spinner seems short of friends. "Nobody in Downing Street comes to his aid," says Guido author Paul Staines. "We are used to people shouting at us down the phone or texting rude words. We don't get that with Craig Oliver stories."

Twitter: @iburrell