Dominic Lawson: The curse of the 24-hour news agenda

As one battle-weary civil servant said to me: 'If you want to send a message, write a letter; laws are too important to be used as a form of advertising'

Related Topics

One of the most depressing remarks I've ever heard was uttered by a member of New Labour's inner circle in the hours after they had won the 1997 general election. Asked what the incoming government's first priority would be, he said: "To win the next election."

He was as good as his word. The first Labour government for 18 years continued as if they were still in opposition, thinking every day of how to dish the Tories, and viewing the value of every policy initiative in that light. This continued after Tony Blair left office and Gordon Brown took over. Just as Blair had proposed to introduce detention without charge for 90 days for terrorist suspects, not because it was necessary but because it would prove Labour were "tougher on terror" than the Tories, so Gordon Brown tried to introduce a similar law for exactly the same reason.

Blair, it's fair to say, had an additional spur to his proposal effectively to abolish habeas corpus: after the London suicide bombings of July 2005 he wanted to come up with a striking initiative, to persuade the media – and in particular The Sun newspaper – that he was "doing something". This, however, only served to illustrate New Labour's other besetting sin as a party of government: it was at all times feverish in its desire to appease the allegedly ravenous beast it called the "24-hour news cycle". As a way of capturing favourable headlines, its method was successful – for a time. As a way of providing the calm policy formation needed for rational government, it was dreadful.

Will the next Conservative administration – if that is what we are going to get after Thursday's poll – be any less frenetic, any less obsessed with the desire to keep one step ahead of the news cycle? Something David Cameron said to Andrew Marr on Sunday morning gives grounds for hope. He told Marr that he aspired to a government of "quiet effectiveness. We have run government in the last 13 years as a sort of branch of the entertainment industry. It has been 24-hour news and 24-hour government. We are not going to sit in an office with the 24-hour news blaring out, shouting at the headlines".

Although the Tory leader did not mention Gordon Brown, it is known that the Prime Minister behaves in exactly that fashion, to the exasperation of his colleagues, not to mention his long-suffering civil servants. (It is, by the way, sublimely ironic that the 24-hour news media turned out to be the nemesis of New Labour and Gordon Brown, the consequence of the Prime Minister's forgetting that he was attached to a Sky News microphone, and thus broadcasting live to the nation not just a staged encounter with what was supposed to be a tame and specially selected voter, but his normal conduct when faced with anyone who dares question his judgement.)

David Cameron's pattern of behaviour as Leader of the Opposition provides scant evidence to date that he will break with the New Labour style. He has been equally prone to producing instant policies to capture a single day's headlines; and his proposal of a £3-a-week payment to those who decide to get or stay married, accompanied by the observation that "the message matters more than the money" was straight out of the New Labour handbook, which seems to regard legislation as a way of "sending out a message". As one battle-weary civil servant said to me: "If you want to send a message, write a letter: laws are too important to be used as a form of advertising." There speaks the wisdom of one who is employed to frame legislation, rather than just dream up initiatives to capture the imagination of a headline-writer.

In Cameron's defence, it is very difficult for a leader of the opposition, up against a substantial government majority in the House of Commons, to achieve much more than favourable headlines. In a sense he cannot "do" anything: striking postures is about the most he can achieve, which is why opposition leaders tend to be the most frustrated figures to be found in the Palace of Westminster.

The problem for David Cameron – at least if the current opinion polls are any guide to what will happen on 6 May – is that he will not enjoy the sort of Commons majorities which New Labour achieved, let alone the landslide which catapulted Tony Blair into office in 1997. Whereas Blair in his first administration behaved every day as if the next election was just around the corner, and therefore quailed at taking the necessary decisions to reform welfare along the lines introduced in the US by President Clinton, Cameron could well be in a position where another election within a year is very likely. In that situation, it will require genuine political courage to take the measures required to break the system which actively encourages able-bodied people to masquerade as medically unfit for work.

Still, there are grounds for hoping that Cameron does possess the necessary courage. Recently I met one of his most trusted advisers, who insisted that "we will certainly be one of the most hated governments in recent history within a very short time of taking office". This was not said with relish, just in acknowledgement of the dire fiscal state which the Conservatives want to tackle head-on, should they become the next government.

It was perhaps with similar thoughts in mind that the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, recently told an American visitor that whichever party won the next election, would be out of power for more than a generation, so unpopular will be the polices it will need to impose. Some readers might recall that the much younger Mervyn King was one of the 364 economists who signed a letter to The Times, condemning Sir Geoffrey Howe's fiscally austere 1981 Budget. Yet the economy began to pick up almost from that point, and kept growing. We will witness exactly the same conflict of opinion at the time of the first "emergency" budget of George Osborne (assuming he gets the opportunity). As much as Cameron wants to distance himself from the legacy of Margaret Thatcher – if only for presentational purposes – his administration will be in a very similar position to hers, circa 1979.

Again, while Cameron on the election trail has tried constantly to define himself in contrast to Margaret Thatcher (with "The Big Society" rebutting her much misinterpreted "No such thing as society"), there is an aspect of her governing style from which he would do well to learn. The lady was not swayed by what appeared from day to day in the newspapers; as for the television news – she hardly watched it at all. Of course, she had people around her who were charged with the job of dealing with the media, but what they never did was devise policies with the chief purpose of feeding the demands of the 24-hour news cycle.

If David Cameron does not want to take his controversial predecessor as a model, let me offer instead the example of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United manager has for many years refused to talk to the BBC, and has been not much more forthcoming in his dealings with other news media; but Ferguson understands something very well: if you get the results right over the long term, you will earn the public's respect. If you don't, then no amount of ingratiation with the media will preserve you from the public's scorn.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front end web developer - URGENT CONTRACT

£250 - £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT** Our...

Health & Social CareTeacher - Full time and Part time

£90 - £140 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: Sixth for...

History Teacher

£95 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Plymouth i...

SQL Developer - Cardiff - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits and bonus: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer -...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: Hislop the Younger, by-election polling and all about the olden days

John Rentoul
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to 'adapt and survive'

Nigel Edwards
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?