Stephen Glover: Only a spin doctor can save Ed Miliband

Media Studies: His difficulty will lie in persuading a suitable journalist tojoin a ship that could capsize in a year or two

Monday 13 December 2010 01:00

A poll in yesterday's Sunday Times put Labour on 42 per cent, two points ahead of the Tories. It is in line with other recent findings. Yet Ed Miliband continues to have appalling ratings for so new a leader. The same YouGov poll suggested that only 27 per cent of respondents think he is up to the job as against 40 per cent who don't.

If only the party had someone competent in charge, it could be making mincemeat out of an increasingly troubled Coalition. We know many Labour MPs would like to see the back of Miliband junior, but that is not going to happen anytime soon. The only realistic option is for him to get his act together. A key part of this process must be to improve his media operation, which has been described to me as amateurish and shambolic.

Mr Miliband has woken up rather late in the day to his need of an Alastair Campbell figure. He shouldn't take the comparison too literally. An aggressive bully with a sometimes loose hold on the truth is not the kind of person he should be looking for. For all that, between 1994 and 1997, when Labour was in opposition, Mr Campbell was brilliant at burnishing Tony Blair's relations with the right-wing press.

It goes without saying that Ed Miliband needs more friends in left-wing newspapers. Only the ever-loyal Daily Mirror is dependable. The Guardian has scarcely been won over. But he must also establish relations with the right-wing press, as both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did. He is regarded by these papers with indifference, which is far worse than contempt. During his leadership campaign he had little need of them because few Labour activists read them. But there are millions of Labour voters, and many potential ones, reading The Sun, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail.

If Mr Miliband studied these papers carefully, he would understand that, with the exception of The Sun, they have reservations about the Coalition which he could exploit. The centrepiece of Mr Campbell's strategy until 1997 was the cultivation of right-wing editors and columnists disenchanted with the Major government. For a time even Simon Heffer was persuaded that Mr Blair was not a bad chap.

I appreciate times are different. The Coalition has by no means sunk as far in the esteem of the right-wing press as the Major administration had by 1994. Mr Miliband has no foreseeable prospect of winning over Rupert Murdoch, and thus The Times and The Sun, as Mr Blair triumphantly did. I can't imagine any right-wing newspaper supporting Mr Miliband, as some did Tony Blair, since he is regarded as too left-wing. His task is to neutralise opposition and excite interest by throwing them a policy or two.

Take law and order. With police numbers being slashed and Ken Clarke's ill-conceived prison reforms, the level of crime, and particularly violent crime, may well rise over the coming years. If Mr Miliband were to have the nous to set out his stall now – and, after all, disquiet about crime is usually felt most keenly by Labour voters – he could soon reap the rewards over lunches and dinners with right-wing editors and columnists. He would have them eating out of his hand if he were to take his Shadow Chancellor's advice and advocate the return of the 40 pence top tax rate.

My advice to Mr Miliband is never to underestimate the value of such gatherings. My further advice is to find a spin doctor who understands the importance of a Labour leader having happy relations with right-wing newspapers. As things stand, he is not on their radar.

His difficulty will lie in persuading a suitable journalist (the name of the BBC's John Pienaar is circulating) to join a ship that could capsize in a year or two. Mr Miliband's adenoidal voice, combined with the impression he gives of having just arrived from another galaxy, may render him unacceptable to right-wing editors and voters alike. Yet for all his undoubted disadvantages, his master Gordon Brown established reasonable relations with the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. Surely it is worth Mr Miliband giving it a try.

What happened to foreign reporting?

One fascinating paradox is that although we supposedly inhabit a global village our newspapers are increasingly insular. Nearly all of them have significantly fewer staff foreign correspondents than 50 years ago. Some, such as the Daily Mail, which used to employ armies of correspondents, many of whom lived like kings, scarcely have any at all.

The common view is that newspapers can no longer afford them. This is certainly not true of the Mail, and I doubt it constitutes the most important reason for the decline of foreign coverage in most other newspapers. Whereas the old-fashioned foreign correspondent required an office and a secretary and demanded first-class travel, his modern counterpart can operate from a garret with a lap-top, and be asked to travel steerage.

My tentative explanation for the decline of the foreign correspondent is that, for all the talk of our living in a global village, we are most of us less interested in foreign news than our parents and grandparents. Peregrine Worsthorne describes how as a young sub-editor on The Times in the early 1950s he spent hours compiling a list of the new Sudanese cabinet, with his superiors insisting on the correct spelling of every name. The middle classes, and even the working classes, of imperial Britain had a much greater interest in political events abroad than we do.

These thoughts are provoked by a report written by Richard Sambrook, a former BBC panjandrum, for the rather absurdly named Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. His study suggests that the foreign correspondent was a 19th-century invention whose day may – and perhaps should – be over. I hope he is wrong. There is no substitute for someone living on the spot who understands a country almost as well as his native land, and senses what his readers will be interested to read. If the foreign correspondent is doomed, it is because we are not really interested in proper foreign news.

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