Rattled Blair to sideline hostile press

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR is planning to take on the British newspapers with a new media strategy intended to let the Prime Minister communicate directly with members of the public.

Downing Street believes the recent spate of negative press coverage shows that political spin is backfiring and is planning to change tactics.

The Prime Minister will take part in more set-piece Commons debates, which his media advisers believe will divert attention away from "Westminster gossip" and back to serious policy issues. Women's magazines, foreign newspapers and the specialist media are also being targeted in an attempt to bypass the mainstream press, which has become increasingly hostile. "We've got to build bridges over them, through them, around them," a Downing Street source said.

At the same time, Mr Blair will go on the offensive against specific newspapers far more often - as he did by taking the Mail on Sunday to the Press Complaints Commission over its coverage of his daughter's school.

The new strategy shows how rattled the Government has been by the clutch of negative stories following the resignations of Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson. Mr Blair is furious that the papers have been concentrating on what he sees as "trivia" - such as ministers' trips on Concorde - and have ignored policy announcements.

It is also a clear sign that the Government will not give in to pressure from the Eurosceptic media to rule out Britain joining the single currency.

The switch in tactics follows focus group research which shows that people are disillusioned with the media but still influenced by what they read.

The Government wants to use other outlets to get its message across. Four members of the strategic communications unit at Downing Street are being deployed to sell stories to the women's magazines, two press officers have been allocated to the ethnic press, and another official has been made responsible for getting Government publicity on to the internet.

The shift is also based on Bill Clinton's experience of handling negative publicity. The US government found that the most effective rebuttal was to get the President to address the people directly. Downing Street was interested by research which showed that 40 per cent of Americans saw at least an hour of Mr Clinton's evidence to the Starr inquiry.