Stephen Glover on the Press

Politicians exclude the public with their arbitrary ban of journalists
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The Independent Online

One of the best books about any election is Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus, written after the 1972 US presidential campaign. Like dozens of other journalists, Crouse followed the candidates around America. He complains in his book about the tendency of the pack to form a consensus, but at least it was possible for reporters to hear and see politicians in action. So, until recently, it was in this country. But in the 2005 General Election, neither Tony Blair or Michael Howard has a "battle bus". They usually fly to wherever they are going, unless it is close to London, and it is proving difficult for national newspaper journalists to keep up with them.

One of the best books about any election is Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus, written after the 1972 US presidential campaign. Like dozens of other journalists, Crouse followed the candidates around America. He complains in his book about the tendency of the pack to form a consensus, but at least it was possible for reporters to hear and see politicians in action. So, until recently, it was in this country. But in the 2005 General Election, neither Tony Blair or Michael Howard has a "battle bus". They usually fly to wherever they are going, unless it is close to London, and it is proving difficult for national newspaper journalists to keep up with them.

The strategy of both major parties is to facilitate television coverage, so that their leaders get fetching pictures on regional and national television evening news. Local journalists, who are sometimes less probing and, dare one say, less politically knowledgeable than their national newspaper colleagues, are given adequate notice of leaders' visits. But Labour will not tell newspaper journalists in London where Mr Blair is going until the very last moment, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them too catch him on the stump - unless, like The Sun, they charter a helicopter. The justification for giving such little notice is security. Yet during at least eight general elections in modern times, the IRA posed a terrorist threat, and party leaders did not offer such a plea.

In any case, Labour's ban is not a blanket one, which it would be if security really was such an all-important consideration. There is evidence that it is discriminating against journalists whom it believes to be unsympathetic, while offering limited access to its more dependable friends. Perhaps unsurprisingly, writers on the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, both of which are regarded as incorrigibly Tory, find it most difficult to gain access to Labour panjandrums. John Prescott has his own jealously guarded battle bus, which wends its way around the country, and journalists on the Mail and Telegraph have been told by his people that only regional media are being informed of its movements. Yet in last Wednesday's Times, there was a long and sympathetic account of Mr Prescott's activities by Ben Macintyre, a New Labour-friendly former sketch writer, where one might have expected to find the paper's more independent-minded current sketch writer, Ann Treneman, displaying her skills.

With New Labour practising it customary control freakery, it would be cheering to report that the Tories were welcoming national newspaper journalists on the stump with open arms. They are not. It is true that they are providing reasonable notice of Mr Howard's movements, but woe betide the journalist who tries to attend a meeting uninvited. Last Thursday, Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail's sketch writer, was barred from entering a Tory gathering in Gloucestershire on the grounds that it was limited to local journalists. A few days earlier, a group of journalists was told it could not join hand-picked colleagues in a south London hospital being visited by Mr Howard. A few slipped in nonetheless, but were eventually made to leave.

Some people blame Guy Black, Mr Howard's press secretary and a former director of the Press Complaints Commission, for the Tories' unhelpful attitude. Mr Black is adept at buttering up sympathetic editors, but has less time for more humble hacks.

Others point to Mr Howard's own authoritarian tendencies. Whatever the cause, the Tory leader surely needs as much exposure as he can get, and it seems particularly daft that his minders should be repelling hacks from sympathetic newspapers. Early last week, he delivered what I am told was a scintillating speech near Kettering, and dealt brilliantly with a heckler. Yet little or nothing of this was apparent in the coverage on the evening news, and his success was barely mentioned in the next day's press, because only one or two national newspaper journalists had been present.

Perhaps it would be naïve of me to assert that election campaigns are supposed to be democratic. The policy of both main parties - the Lib Dems are generally judged to be somewhat more open - is to manipulate coverage on the road so that television cameras and local media are granted as much access as possible, while national newspaper journalists, with a few chosen exceptions, are discouraged. One can understand why Mr Prescott might believe that he has little to gain from inviting certain sketch writers to follow his movements, but the policy of exclusion, once adapted, is bound to be inimical to democracy.

The General Election of 2005 is the most stage-managed in our history. Of course, the morning conferences, during which journalists question party leaders, are robust affairs; the more so, perhaps, because they are becoming the only occasions when elusive politicians can be examined. If this seems a boring campaign, it is at least partly because the goings-on out there on the road are not being properly written about. What happens between the morning conferences and the evening news is either largely unknown by the British public, or else sweetly packaged and presented by politicians in a way that suits them. These are the same politicians who piously lament the public's declining interest in the democratic process - and then do their best to frustrate it.

Why we'll keep taking the new tabloids

After The Independent went tabloid, followed by The Times, both papers looked rather like squeezed-down broadsheets. The Independent's new redesign is an attempt to deal with this perception.

On the whole, it is successful. I like the elegant new headlines. Commuters will probably welcome the inclusion of the tabloid Review section in the main paper - it can no longer fall out - though some readers at home may miss it.

Tabloids involve a lot of page-turning, which can become repetitive. The Daily Mail addressed this difficulty by abolishing the traditional demarcations between foreign and home news, and having feature pages or columns in the midst of news. The re-designed Independent has introduced more variation in its news pages, thereby improving the pacing for the reader. As a result of having seven rather than six columns, there are also more stories on the page - more to read before the page is turned. In my view, though, it still takes too long to get to the comment pages.

The next big development in the transformation of the so-called quality press will be The Guardian's relaunch in a Le Monde-type format (smaller than a broadsheet, larger than a tabloid) in September. My spies say that it looks very handsome, but there are reports that it will be multi-sectioned, partly to accommodate the acres of classified ads the paper receives thanks to HMG. It would be an irony if The Guardian's highly lucrative government advertising blighted its relaunch.

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