JOHN MAJOR's sensitivity to the press has often been commented on. He is reputed to scramble for the first editions every day, like an actor after a first night. But an actor who had so little success in convincing his Fleet Street critics would soon end up playing third peasant in regional rep. Once again last weekend, the Prime Minister's fascination with newspapers must have been an appalled fascination.
For example, as a keen student of journalism, the Prime Minister will have been aware of a genre of reporting known as 'kiss-and-tell', in which the scorned consort of a celebrity reveals over several pages what they did together in private. But he would have been surprised to discover in this week's Mail on Sunday a generic mutant of the form, which we might call 'no-kiss- and-tell', in which interviewees reveal over several pages what they and a celebrity did not do in private. In this case his interest would have been particularly intense since he was the celebrity and the interviewee his former cook and libel-action partner, Clare Latimer.
But in expecting his out-of-court settlement with the New Statesman to end press interest in his friendship with Ms Latimer, the Prime Minister has once again demonstrated that, though a keen student of media methods, he remains something of a freshman. If he had read the newspapers closely, he would have noticed that there has recently been a spate of articles about celibacy. You can barely open a publication these days without seeing a headline like: 'Why We Say No To Sex - By Charlotte, 26, and Tony, 29'. In this climate, the Prime Minister's celibate relationship with his cook would inevitably arouse comment.
Well, you can't win, can you?, one imagines Mr Major saying. To which the answer must be that, no, he can not, so why does he keep trying to play the newspaper game?
But he does, obsessively. In between brooding over this weekend's 'no-kiss-and-tell' shocker involving him, Mr Major was almost certainly fuming over the messy confusion of 'Operation Irma'. Here, again, we can imagine the Prime Minister believing that he had the media sorted out. Staring at the newspapers for omens last week, he noticed pictures of desperately ill Bosnian children.
Here, at last, was something he could do, without upsetting a wing of the Tory party. This would be, one imagines Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, sagely saying, a 'good news story', which would 'draw a line' under criticism of inaction over Bosnia. (To outsiders, it seems odd that Sir Norman should be regarded as a media expert, as many would hesitate to entrust him with a paper round, but Mr Major's inner circle is of his own construction, so let that be.) So the airlift for sick Irma is fixed and, what do you know, the press start talking about token efforts and photo-opportunity politics.
Reading this, the Prime Minister, with his celebrated sensitivity to bad reviews, sends for some more children. And the press ask, why just kids, and complain that this is merely a bigger photo opportunity. So a mixed airlift is accepted and the headlines object that some are former soldiers, while others paid their way on the plane.
Well, really, one imagines Mr Major thinking, there's no pleasing those bastards] To which the reply would have to be: no, there isn't, so why does he keep trying?
The first reason for the failure of 'Operation Irma' to silence the hostile snipers on the mountains around Downing Street is that Mr Major and his advisers have an old-fashioned idea of the relationship between politicians and the media. They see the press as children being offered sweets, a situation that obtained in the early days of media manipulation but which is no longer true. A new scepticism has developed, not least because of the failure of successive politicians - Bush, Major, Clinton - to live up to the PR campaigns that sections of their national media had run for them. Political journalists are, for the moment, less like children uncritically accepting sweeties than those ordered to sit still and eat their greens. Politicians ought now to expect the querulous 'Whhhyyyy?'
Accordingly, as the Prime Minister's difficulties demonstrate, playing symbolic politics becomes ever more complicated. A photo opportunity cannot be deployed in isolation. It is always vulnerable to being trumped by that other electronic electoral weapon: the sound-bite. Pictures of sick Bosnian children in hospital in Sarajevo - and then arriving in London - stood a reasonable chance of winning the publicity war up until the point when Sylvana Foa, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, unleashed her sound-bite: 'Sarajevo is not a supermarket, where you can say, 'I will have that one and this one.' What are the criteria here? Why not just children with blond hair and blue eyes?'
The British government had aimed for the eye, but Ms Foa had the ear far more powerfully.
Mr Major's lack of sophistication in these matters is especially strange given the examples from his own past of the treacheries of gesture politics. The 'Jennifer's Ear' farrago of the last general election should have taught him that distressed and telegenic children are not the simple bonus points for politicians popular myth holds them to be. The lack of tabloid acclaim for the release of the Midlands girls imprisoned in Bangkok for drug smuggling - an outcome secured by the Prime Minister's personal entreaties to the King of Thailand - might also have warned him that symbolic demonstrations of concern do not always have the expected outcome.
My mind keeps wandering to another famous August story: that of Blackie the Donkey, a maltreated animal discovered in distress in Spain one summer. Blackie became the subject of a bidding war between the British tabloids to bring him home. John Major, I suspect, urged on by Sir Norman Fowler, would have sent an RAF Hercules on a mercy mission to get the donkey. But then there would have been problems over quarantine - and someone would mutter that stalls in British donkey sanctuaries should be saved for native mules - and the Prime Minister would huff and puff and say: Well, what do people want?
But the clincher of the Prime Minister's disappointment over 'Operation Irma' was that news management works best on nearly made-up minds. A poster or slogan campaign against taxation - however simplistic - benefits from the audience's willingness to be convinced. They can be sold a pup because they are standing there already with the dog biscuits, and the lead, and the dog licence. An issue such as Bosnia, on which the consensus public position is one of bruised confusion, is always likely to produce a more fickle response. The mercy mission for children sounds good on Monday, but by Wednesday the 'Sarajevo supermarket' argument suddenly has a lot to commend it. The average British citizen is, on the subject of Bosnia, indeed in a supermarket, squeezing this opinion, then wrinkling the nose and going for that one instead. The Prime Minister and his advisers made the mistake of assuming that people would not shop around.
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