British PM Tony Blair is a master spinner and Crikey’s correspondent at Westminster, writing under the name of Martin Suiteach, tells exactly how he does it.
It’s 10:45 AM and a group of hacks shuffle their way along London’s Whitehall, past the grey edifices of the Treasury and Foreign Office. They present their special parliamentary passes to police at the iron gates that guard Downing Street, a monument to Margaret Thatcher’s fear of the IRA, and make their way, appropriately, to the tradesman’s entrance of Number 10.
They are members of the “Lobby”, a small group of parliamentary journalists who enjoy privileged access to certain parts of Parliament, and are there for their morning briefing from Alastair Campbell, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman.
Campbell, a former political editor of the Mirror newspaper, joined the team in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. He is tough, abrasive, and seen by many as the real power behind No 10 Downing Street.
Campbell’s briefings are on the record, can be audio taped, but not filmed. The contents can be used in copy, but the recording can’t be used for broadcast. Downing Street takes its own recording and produces a read-out which is faxed to all ministerial departments to keep them up to speed on what the main running stories are for the day. A second briefing is held at 4pm in the House of Commons.
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As the journalists leave their briefing, a few may stay behind to share a joke with Campbell, or try to tease a few more facts out of him. Others, from the news agencies or afternoon papers will make their way back to King George Street, between the government departments and away from Whitehall’s traffic and tourists to file copy via mobile phone.
Campbell insists on being referred to as the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (there’s no unofficial post, so what’s the point?), his deputy is a mere “Downing Street spokesman”.
His morning Lobby briefings are generally jovial, but he is not above seeking out the author of an offending article and referring to it as “garbage” or a “poisonous piece of propaganda” as he did on a BBC piece last week.
Campbell changed the previous reporting rules on Lobby briefings, when he placed them on the record. Now you can even get a summary of these on the internet, which did cause some concern among hacks here that their news desks would have access to this “privileged” information.
The rules on reporting these briefings have changed over the years. Joe Haines, working for Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in the mid-1970’s, made them on the record. However, when the questions got awkward, he banned them altogether.
Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath, who preceded Wilson, went for presidential-style press conferences with cameras allowed in, but made sure he was only questioned by a chosen few who wouldn’t rock the boat. This group of senior Lobby correspondents became known as “the White Commonwealth”.
Under Margaret Thatcher’s spokesman Bernard Ingham, lobby briefings took place, but were entirely off the record, to the point that officially, they didn’t happen. Journalists couldn’t even refer to Downing Street, instead the phrase “Whitehall sources” was used.
Back in the mother of parliaments, the reporters that hold such high office within their profession are forced to work together in the cramped conditions of the press gallery. Spread over three floors, journalists sit cheek-by-jowl, with little privacy in rooms that are cold in the winter and roasting in the summer.
News organisations share facilities that test temperaments and political affiliation. For example, journalists from the right-wing Daily Mail share an office with the left-leaning Sunday broadsheet The Observer.
However, they do have a silver service restaurant, a typically ropey canteen, and that haven of all havens, a press bar offering booze at subsidised prices. Here, information is passed happily between hacks. When a few too many have been imbibed, invitations are issued to settle differences “outside”.
The place does reek of the past, of an old mens’ club. It is one of the last workplaces in town where smoking is allowed. There are dress rules. Men can take off their jackets in the House of Commons reporters’ gallery in the summer only. Every year two reporters are elected as chairman of the gallery and Lobby respectively.
In the lower gallery there is a row of telephone booths with sliding doors that you will only see now in old 1950s movies. They used to be wired to a red light on the outside to show copy was being filed and the occupant shouldn’t be disturbed.
Now, these are used by hacks who need to make calls that can’t be overheard by competitors, or, in some cases, as offices by new entrants to the Lobby who can’t be given a desk due to lack of space.
In the bar, a straw poll of Campbell’s decision to place his comments on the record shows some journalists welcome the move, but others believe it is a smoke and mirrors trick. It is easy to say “no comment” on the record. In other words, it looks open, but very little useful information is being passed on compared with an off-the-record chat.
One of Campbell’s favourite phrases is: “I’m not going to go beyond what I’ve already said”, even when what he’s already said is bugger all. Another, particularly in relation to questions on the Northern Ireland peace process is “we are where we are”. When a story is published that is accurate and has got behind the government’s defences he says it is “unhelpful”.
Experienced hacks in the gallery are also concerned that the medium becomes the message. They told me last week that even with this attempt at open government, Campbell still does a ring around anyway to the chosen few who are regarded as “on message”.
The role of the spin doctor is obviously not a foreign concept to Australian journalists. A good scan of the Crikey register will tell you that. It should be familiar to Melbourne journalists working in the early 1980s under the Cain administration when the Media Unit was established.
This group of press spokesmen and women developed the art of keeping the media pack at arms’ length from their minister – unless they had good news or something to sell, of course. One hack who dared to use his contact book and contact a minister directly was told all future access would be refused unless he went through the media minder first. No wonder it became known as the “Ministry of Truth”.
The operation in the UK follows similar lines with a few modifications. Each minister has at least one “special adviser”; they are well-paid and loyal. Their arrival following Labour’s crushing election win in 1997 also put the noses of several established press officers well and truly out of joint after they found themselves “outside the loop”.
The pre-1997 structure was fairly straightforward. Each department had a press office, staffed by public servants. These were led by a “head of news”, a public servant with (theoretically) no political leanings.
The biggest ructions were caused at the Treasury within Labour’s first two months in power, when the established head of news resigned in disgust at being kept in the dark on the new government’s policy by the two spin doctors working for the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.
These advisers, Charlie Whelan and the absurdly young 31-year-old Ed Balls, helped Brown to design his five year plan to redistribute the nation’s wealth without saying as much.
Whelan, a former trades union press officer, liked to brief journalists in the pub opposite the Treasury. He was overheard on his mobile phone feeding the UK line to the Times that the government wouldn’t join the first wave of the European single currency by two researchers from the Liberal Democrat Party who promptly leaked the information.
This led to mass confusion within Labour ranks. Campbell was away, Blair couldn’t find anyone to help and ended up calling Whelan, not a fan of the Blair faction within the Labour Party, to find out his own government’s position on the single currency.
The story caused a huge media feeding frenzy, which put the role of the Lobby and its relations with the new administration under the spotlight for the first time in decades. Now the press advisers were becoming as well known as Cabinet ministers (something that didn’t please always their masters).
Whelan, who has admitted bending the truth to get a policy a good run in the news, was forced to quit after his alleged involvement in the resignation of Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson over an undeclared home loan. The lobby network has secured him a radio show, newspaper column on sport (why?) and a script for a fictional political mini-series involving a minister who is, you guessed it, forced to resign.
There is also a pecking order. Information is handed out to those outlets who have the largest audience, so the BBC, ITV and national newspapers are given a good steer in policy and announcements. This has led to complaints that parliament is being sidelined as most announcements meant to be given to the House first are trailed in the papers and radio bulletins beforehand.
Blair has a well worked routine at press conferences, the TV reporters get first crack (whether they’ve got a question or not), then a couple of newspaper guys. If he’s got an international audience, some lucky foreigner will get to quiz the prime minister.
During the ’97 campaign, Blair was in Nottingham at a press conference on a video link back to Labour’s London HQ where more hacks were assembled. After his opening remarks Blair called for questions and pointed to Ian Austin of The Australian who identified himself as such, only to find Blair looking confused and mumbling something along the lines of “I thought you were a local reporter”. Austin looked suitably unimpressed and fired back: “Does it make a difference? I can still ask a question, can’t I?”
The foreign press, or “planet no vote” as they were labeled by Campbell in 1997, got little change out of Labour during the campaign. This soon changed after the victory when the new administration, which now needed to show its pro-European credentials as centre-left parties started to dominate the European political scene, was accused of arrogance over refusing to speak to the Continental media.
Now the European media, which gives Blair a fairly good ride, is held up as a paragon of balanced journalism by Campbell and Blair, who will tell the Germans, French, Italians and others that the UK media is “self-obsessed”.
Three years into Labour’s first term in office since 1979, Campbell is as recognised a figure as his “boss”. Journalists in Scotland and Wales, however, have emphatically rejected the Lobby system as a model for reporting in their newly devolved legislatures. They feel the whole system is out of date for the 21st century. For them a national press pass is sufficient for entry and they feel the right to approach ministers directly.
Meanwhile, In London, the House of Commons has welcomed the 21st century by allowing reporters to use a 20th century invention to help them cover debates in the chamber – the tape recorder.