Archive for the ‘David Hill’ tag

Tony Blair and the media – "not bovvered"

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I suppose it’s the equivalent of a teenage sulk. After the Labour government’s brutal battle with the BBC, and following the infamous 6.07am Andrew Gilligan two-way on the Today Programme, how did Tony Blair react? He turned it off. He ignored it. “In the four years I worked at Downing Street”, David Hill, Alastair Campbell’s successor as Head of No.10 Communications said last night, “Tony Blair never once listened to the Today programme”.

But like any self-respecting teenage sulk, Blair’s did not end with the Today programme. According to Hill, between 2003 and 2007, the Prime Minister never consciously listened to or watched a news bulletin – not on the BBC, not on ITV, nor on Channel 4 nor Sky. “He flicked through the papers occasionally”.

If he needed to know what the media were saying, Hill said, “he had techniques” and he had his communications team. A team that Hill led after Campbell’s resignation in 2003 until Tony Blair stepped down in June 2007. Hill was speaking publicly for the first time last night since leaving Number 10: about his time at Downing Street, about dealing with the press post Hutton and Campbell, and on the future of the relationship between the government and the media. I introduced him to an audience of journalism and PR students at Westminster University.

There is a strange contradiction here. On the one hand we had a government supposedly obsessed by the media and addicted to spin. A Prime Minister who railed against the ‘feral beasts’ of the press and lamented the way the media “saps the country’s confidence and self-belief… undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, …reduces our capacity to take the right decisions”. Yet on the other we had a PM who we’re told utterly ignored the news and filtered all headlines through his press office.

Nor did the rest of Hill’s talk resolve the contradiction. Like Blair and Campbell, Hill lamented the culture of negativity that characterises the British press, particularly the national newspapers. “National papers believe the only interesting news is negative news”. The Sunday papers are, Hill said, the worst; “they have only one hit a week [so] each paper is desperate for… the most effective political splash”. These tend to be “more about character assassination than general politics”. And since they all want their splash to be about something different it is almost impossible to prepare for them.

This constant negativity damages public life, Hill argued. Media criticism has become so personal, he said, that it is driving people away from public office for fear of vilification and humiliation. Plus the flood of bad news headlines have generated a “perceptions gap”, where the public believe public services are much worse than their own experience tells them. Talk to people about their own treatment by the NHS, for example, and the majority will say it was very good (65% approval according to Hill). But ask them about the NHS nationally and they’ll shake their heads and say it’s a mess (comparable approval ratings at around 25%). This, Hill believes, is a direct consequence of what people see on TV and read in the papers.

And, if anything, Hill thinks things are likely to get worse. “Political comment and news will become ever more personal” since “it is easier to play the man than the ball”. Negative stories will continue to trump positive ones. Stories with no identifiable source will spread virally via the internet and be virtually impossible to stop.

When asked why the government does not try to do anything to change this Hill became more defensive. It is, he complained, “an unfair relationship”, a “very very unequal relationship”, “in which the journalists hold all the cards”. They decide on the tone, the content, the angle and the emphasis. The government has to work within their rules, their agendas, and their deadlines. The only way around this is to try to reach above media constraints and appeal directly to the public. This is what Tony Blair tried to do with his series of speeches on ‘major themes’ in the closing months of his premiership, with varying degrees of success.

Yet, from the outside at least, it looks like the government’s overall response to the media post Hutton was slightly less mature. Perhaps Tony Blair’s memorable performance with Catherine Tate on Comic Relief in 2007 was even more apposite than it seemed at the time. Perhaps he really was “not bovvered”. But the answer to the continuing deterioration of relations between government and the media is surely not disengagement – by either side. There must be a more positive approach to the problem than just switching off.

Written by Martin Moore

February 21st, 2008 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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