Will Labour's new press chief become the story?
Tom Baldwin must learn from the mistakes of his predecessors to turn his new boss into the next PM, says Andy McSmith
Saturday 18 December 2010
Tom Baldwin, the chief reporter of The Times, who will shortly take on the job that Alastair Campbell had 16 years ago, has been given an early warning shot by Bob Ainsworth, the former Home Office minister.
Ainsworth threw away a lifelong reputation for being cautiously dull by calling for drugs to be decriminalised.
He did not expect support from the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, but it annoyed him when someone speaking anonymously on Miliband's behalf called him "irresponsible".
"I will not be the slightest bit upset if anybody disagrees in any terms with what I am saying, but I am upset by anonymous briefings by my party against its members," Ainsworth told the House of Commons. "The road of anonymous briefings leads to Damian McBride. My party learnt from that problem once; it does not need to learn the lesson again.. Whoever this individual is, they should stop, because if they do not stop and if they say these things about me, I will say things like this, publicly, in television studios, and in the Chamber of the House of Commons."
Most of the people who have made up Ed Miliband's press team since May have already either moved on or are about to. In January, he will have a whole new operation, headed by Baldwin and the former Daily Mirror political editor Bob Roberts.
Miliband will not be the only party leader to overhaul his media operation in 2011. Nick Clegg is advertising for his own head of communications so he doesn't have to continue to try to get his message out through the Downing Street machine. There is also the possibility that David Cameron would need a new spin doctor, if the lawyers representing celebrities whose phones were hacked by the News of the World under Andy Coulson's editorship are ever able to prove that as editor Coulson knew what his employees were up to. He strenuously denies that he did.
When Tom Baldwin starts his new job, he will keep mostly out of sight, while the day-to-day job of talking to journalists will be delegated to Roberts. Baldwin has attracted an unusual amount of attention for someone whose job was to report the news rather than be the news. When Jack Straw was Home Secretary, he set the police on Baldwin after a pre-publication copy of the report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence leaked early.
But more often Baldwin was on the Labour side in whatever argument he was drawn into. He backed Alastair Campbell throughout the affair of the suicide of the weapons expert David Kelly, to the extent that the former BBC director-general Greg Dyke said The Times should sack him. More dangerously, he was the author of a series of reports about the business activities of Lord Ashcroft, the Conservatives' main financial backer after the 1997 election. Ashcroft retaliated by accusing Baldwin of having a drug habit.
Ed Miliband has done well to entice two successful journalists to throw up their successful careers to enter the uncertain world of politics, particularly as it is such a short time since Labour's defeat. When Campbell went to work for Tony Blair in 1994 he knew that there would be a job for him in Downing Street within three years. The current opinion polls give Labour an outside chance of victory in 2015, but no more than that.
And because of the factionalised nature of political parties, anyone who arrives from outside into a prominent position cannot expect to be made welcome on all sides. Blogs and newspapers hostile to Labour will revive all the old controversies from Baldwin's colourful career. The hostility does not all come from Labour's enemies.
Inside the party, there are people who did not vote for Ed Miliband to be their leader, and who do not want him running the kind of machine that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown once ran.
The evident passion with which Bob Ainsworth attacked those anonymous briefers, with that toxic reference to Gordon Brown's notorious spin doctor McBride, shows that he thinks that the Labour leader might be on the point of deploying someone to attack the reputations of anyone in the party who deviates from the agreed line. He may be wrong, but his outburst is a sign of how bruised Labour MPs remain by past experiences.
So, as the new media advisers take office, they should keep this in mind: spin doctors are like poisoners. There are famous poisoners, and successful poisoners, but there are no famous, successful poisoners.
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