Enoch Powell once said: “A politician complaining about the media is like a sailor complaining about the sea.” He was right. Any sailor knows you have to deal with the weather as it comes – respect it, be wary of it, and if necessary adapt your plans because of it. The same is true for politicians and the media. It is, more often than not, a complete waste of time and nearly always counter-productive for a politician or a political party to spend time blaming the media for their troubles. (The same is also true for members of the Royal Family, film stars, religious leaders, and every other person and organisation who courts media coverage when it suits them.)
For six years I was a national newspaper Lobby Correspondent, one of those privileged journalists accredited to Parliament to report on politics from inside Parliament. This was during the early years of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ government. Blair took media handling very seriously and employed the tough and experienced Alistair Campbell to deal with us. It is a joy to read Alistair’s tweets now on government openness because I do not remember him being so keen on it back then. I know what it’s like to try and dig out or stand a story up in the face of determined resistance by No 10 or a senior politician.
I have also been a Parliamentary candidate. I have spent time trying to persuade people to vote for me. Time trying to convince local (thankfully I was not important enough to attract national attention) journalists to write good things about me. Sometimes I succeeded, but more often than not during that time as a candidate I opened the papers to find disobliging coverage. That feeling of being misrepresented, of being hunted, is a very powerful one.
Having experience therefore being a working Westminster journalist and also an aspirant MP, I always have a certain sympathy for both sides in any dispute between the two. The fact is that both politicians and journalists have important jobs to do. A politician’s job is to set out a platform for governing and try and persuade us to support them. A journalists job is to set out each day to find out what’s going on, and report on the politician. It might sound all a bit simplistic but sometimes the basics can become obscured. The two jobs are often in conflict and that’s the way it is meant to be. Neither side should become bogged down in attacking the role of the other – it’s narcissism of the highest order. The relationship is symbiotic and each side needs to remember it.
There’s much nonsense talk about whether it is 1992 or 1995. Forget that. That’s just nostalgia. If senior members of the government were serious about understanding how John Major pulled off the remarkable 1992 General Election they would consult him directly, but they will not because they know only too well his view on their performance. The much better lesson for Rishi Sunak to take is one from Tony Blair. Even after Alastair Campbell departed Downing Street, Blair’s government carried on just as smoothly as it had done before because Blair understood that one thing above all else is the key to dominating a government: momentum. A general election victory gives a Prime Minister momentum. The delivery of a successful event or policy can give a Prime Minister momentum. Momentum is built by an endless stream of initiatives, activity, events, the Prime Minister being in constant dialogue with the country. The quiet, efficient delivery of government is certainly desirable, but the Prime Minister needs to deliver that and the sense of momentum that will carry him and his government on to success.
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