Andreas Whittam Smith: Respect voters and you'll also respect the press

Despite the bluff and bluster, Blair and Campbell were frightened of the media
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The Independent Online

The press was mentioned only briefly in the erudite, sweeping speech on constitutional reform given by the Prime Minister last week. He spoke of "respecting freedoms for our press" and "the removal of barriers to investigative journalism". All well and good. Yet the way in which the media and the Government of the day interact is itself an aspect of our constitutional arrangements.

Despite the bluff and bluster, Tony Blair and his henchman, Alastair Campbell, were frightened of the media. They beat their chests but their hearts were pounding. As Mr Blair put it in one of his final speeches: "A vast aspect of our jobs today – outside the really major decisions, as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points it literally overwhelms."

Or as Alistair Campbell wrote in his diary of a particular day: "You had Ireland, public sector pay, welfare, serious issues and they went on endlessly about Robin Cooke's bloody secretary."

This intense relationship goes back to the Labour Party's last period in opposition. Mr Blair told Mr Campbell when he joined him in 1994 that what you said, how you said it, and how it was reported was a large part of your armoury. "Our words are going to be vital." Or, as Mr Blair afterwards admitted, "we paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media." The relationship, however, became corrupt. Mr Campbell, writing in his diary during 2000, having had his "usual rant about the press", tells how Mr Blair reminded him that the press "tore John Major to shreds, in part with our complicity." And also, for pragmatic reasons, said the Prime Minister, "we entered into a whole series of basically dishonest relationships with them and now they realised that." What this meant, I think, is that Labour fed tidbits to the media about Mr Major and his ministers that it was not prepared to use in its own name.

Thus Mr Blair and Mr Campbell's fear was the ancient one that if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword. As Mr Campbell wrote: "They (the press) believe that they helped to do for Thatcher, did for Major, and that they can do for us, and we have to stop them." And again, "(this war) doesn't end, you have to fight the whole time, or they make sure that you never get heard properly." So how to avoid this fate? Did you make friends with the media or did you declare war? The Campbell diary records a crucial discussion. The extract is from 2000. Mr Campbell writes that he "had another go at trying to get an agreement on the strategy for the press. Do we make them an issue, and really go for some of them, or not? He (Mr Blair) said he felt the same about journalists as I did. The question is, is it sensible politics to be at war with them? I (Campbell) wanted to undermine them, divide and rule. He felt we could continue to woo them." Mr Campbell got his way. Naturally, the media responded.

Mr Campbell's methods were not new, but he combined them with a rare vigour. There was attack and bullying. "I bollocked X (the reporter) but he held his ground." There was complaining to editors and proprietors. "I called Victor Blank, chairman of Trinity Mirror plc, to say I really thought the Mirror coverage (of the election) had been a joke."

There was divide and rule by handing out favours to individual journalists. Unfortunately, though, while Mr Campbell conducted his offensive, there were repeated bouts of panic at headquarters. We learn from the diaries of a day in 2001 when "(Blair) was up north and must have called half a dozen times in the morning, like a phone-in caller making random points to a radio station."

What, then, would a normal relationship look like? Paradoxically, the Government wouldn't have a grand media policy as such but rather an understanding at a technical level. For everything would depend upon the Government's attitude to the public. How it dealt with the press would emerge from this more important concern. The main principle should be to respect the voters. Don't play tricks on them by such techniques as making the same announcement many times or by stage managing events as if you were producing a Hollywood feel-good film. A further aspect of respect is that everybody should learn important news at the same time. It was wrong to announce recently to a single TV programme broadcast by the BBC that there would be no early election.

Prime ministers and ministers should also be careful not to make statements so implausible that they call into question their honesty. Respect in this sense would permeate the media/ government axis. Any government which followed these rules wouldn't have a war with the media, wouldn't panic about what the media might do and wouldn't be overwhelmed as poor Mr Blair was. The Government would have learnt to cope.

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