Zero tolerance in the press room

When Tory spin doctors decided to shut out certain journalists at last week's conference, they thought it would make for positive coverage. Big mistake.
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The Independent Online

Journalists arriving at last week's Conservative Party conference quickly found themselves victims of a curious form of apartheid as they searched the press room for their work stations.

Journalists arriving at last week's Conservative Party conference quickly found themselves victims of a curious form of apartheid as they searched the press room for their work stations.

Tory-inclined newspapers, including The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Times, were allocated a small but carpeted office with proper desks. But the non-Tory press, including The Mirror, The Guardian and The Independent, were holed up with provincial papers in what looked like an underground car park, with lumps of concrete sticking out of the walls, trestle tables for desks and a filthy stone floor.

When Tory spin doctors paid a rare visit to this Siberian outpost, there were lots of jokes about "two nations" and "exclusion", the very opposite of the inclusive message William Hague hoped the bemused journalists would convey to the voters.

As the week progressed, it appeared that the allocation of space in the Bournemouth International Conference Centre was no accident. Tory press officers were much happier to brief "friendly" papers about the speeches to be made the next day by shadow ministers than journals they (wrongly) perceived to be hostile. "There is no point having this conversation," Nick Wood, the deputy head of media, said as he brushed away protests from The Scotsman and The Herald. "We deal with people we trust, and that's it." Complaints from those excluded from the Tories' "White Commonwealth" simmered all week, and boiled over in an angry confrontation between The Guardian and Wood and Amanda Platell, the party's head of media, at 1.30am on Thursday in the lobby of the Highcliff Hotel.

The Guardian's man gleefully held up the front page of Thursday's Daily Telegraph, whose headline said: "Widdecombe causes law and disorder". He told Wood and Platell: "You've done a brilliant job! Alastair Campbell will be quaking in his boots."

The Telegraph front page, highlighting the disarray over Widdecombe's "zero tolerance" policy on cannabis, was a cruel irony for the Tory media team. For they had handed the story on the eve of Widdecombe's speech to the Telegraph and the three other papers with whom it shared an office in Bournemouth, while deliberately excluding the non-Tory papers camped in the underground car park.

The Tories remain furious with the Telegraph's follow-up on Thursday - protests continued yesterday - even though the paper accurately reported the confusion over Widdecombe's policy.

The incident illustrated the limitations of selective briefings; those "friendly" newspapers given the story could not ignore the controversy, while the papers outside "the loop" were furious at their exclusion (and probably less likely to give the proposal a fair wind as a result).

Tory spinners said The Independent had been left off its list because they judged the paper would not be sympathetic to a crackdown on cannabis. But they had not done their homework about their media "friends": six months ago, the Telegraph called for cannabis to be decriminalised for a trial period.

An inquest among William Hague's inner circle on Wednesday morning concluded that it was a mistake to exclude some papers from the advance briefing on Widdecombe's speech. But, in this case, the damage had been done. Wood told an anxious Michael Ancram, the Conservative Party chairman, that he hoped the story would be a one-day wonder, but it was still running strongly yesterday thanks to the Mail on Sunday's bullseye in which seven members of the Shadow Cabinet admitted trying cannabis.

Jibes about Alastair Campbell hurt the Tories, who remain somewhat in awe of Tony Blair's press secretary, just as they used to model themselves on Peter Mandelson. In many ways, they are right to aspire to Campbell's standards of spinmeistery. To be fair, it is undeniably true that Wood, a former political correspondent at The Times, and Platell, former editor of the Sunday Express, have sharpened up a lacklustre Tory media machine that was in the doldrums after the party's crushing 1997 defeat.

While they have undoubtedly closed the performance gap between the two parties, the Tory team showed in Bournemouth that they have not yet learnt all the lessons in the Campbell book. The Tories seem to think the blueprint is to dole out stories like sweeties to friendly papers - and punish those who write hostile ones by excluding them in future. In fact, Campbell is more subtle than that, and is well aware that hell hath no fury like a journo scorned.

When Labour was in opposition, Campbell deliberately cultivated the non-Labour papers. Neil Kinnock blamed his 1992 defeat on the Tory tabloids but would not set foot in the Kensington offices of the Daily Mail. By contrast, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown recognised the need to sup with the media devil.

All the same, Labour's spin doctors did not have it all their own way during their Brighton conference. They began on the backfoot after the fuel crisis, an unaccustomed position, but showed themselves to be better at crisis management than the Tories have been during the Widdecombe affair.

Alastair Campbell kept a low profile in Brighton; when he made a rare venture into Labour's non-apartheid press room, he was mobbed by hacks and television crews. Unusually, Campbell didn't even do the advance spinning on Blair's speech, leaving that to Lance Price, a former BBC political correspondent, who has just moved from Downing Street to beef up Labour's press operation at its Millbank headquarters for the general election.

The conference season also showed the limitations of spin and the crazy 19-hour days worked by the spin doctors. Labour dominated the news agenda, partly because it is the governing party, but also because there were few other big stories around. But Hague's speech was unluckily eclipsed by the dramatic events in Belgrade, knocking the Tory leader off page one in all papers except The Daily Telegraph and The Sun.

But spare a thought, too, for the cuddly Liberal Democrats. Their Bournemouth conference was overshadowed by the petrol protests, forcing some political correspondents to beat a hasty retreat to London to report the biggest crisis to engulf the Blair government. But the lack of front-page exposure did not stop Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, from touring the press room at the close of the conference to thank the surprised hacks for their help.