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The Watney's Party Seven was an icon of my adolescence. In the long, hot summer of 1976 just about every weekend meant an 18th birthday ...

04 January 2015

Spin Has Sprung (and it's only January)

We're barely into a new year and already the opening shots have been fired in what's shaping up to be a long, bitter and dirty General Election campaign. Repeated polls tell us no party has a clear majority.

With no front runner and all to play for, the campaign ground rules have shifted dramatically even since 2010. Every utterance, every poster launch, every Twitter gaffe is picked over, attacked and rebutted in minute detail. National newspapers, bar the occasional sensational scoop, are irrelevant in the minute-by-minute game, the tribal nature of their coverage appealing only to their faithful readership.

The 'national treasure' TV correspondents - Nick Robinson, Jon Snow,  Adam Boulton - lose their edge (and occasionally their cool) under the pressure of relentless 24 hour campaigning and are increasingly identified as part of the political establishment they are supposed to be scrutinising.

What this means is that local radio, TV and papers are going to be in the forefront of the 2015 contest.

The one thing everyone's agreed on is that when everyone's sick of Westminster bubble reporting, the quest for hearts and minds turns local.

The same journalists who shared the joy of Yorkshire's Tour de France, the tragedy of a teacher murdered in her classroom, or who stay up all night to prepare for our journey to work in the snow are trusted like no others. This is a huge strength, but also a huge responsibility now the spin doctors have us in their sights.

In part, this is because journos in the sticks are perceived as an easier to manipulate.

That's not true, of course. Local editors of my acquaintance are proud of their service, and will protect it with the fierce determination of a lioness defending her cubs. It is true to say they're often less experienced than their national colleagues at fending off what is likely to become an onslaught of bribes, bullying and dirty tricks. And certainly in the commercial world, the pressures can become overwhelming.

One trap to watch out for is the exclusive opportunity - with strings attached. At my station in 1997 we were stunned to be approached by Tory central office with an offer of an exclusive interview with (then PM) John Major.

He was in Bradford to do the soapbox hand-shakey thing. There was only time in his schedule to do one station. So far so good. Then comes the sinister bit. "Only breakfast, because he's a busy man, and oh, by the way, we don't want a journalist to interview him; we want a cosy chat with the friendly, cuddly jock. Those are the terms, take it or leave it."

For better or worse, and against my wishes, the bosses went with it. I think it's fair to say Major's press team were delighted with the resulting broadcast. It was certainly a more convivial on air encounter than he would have had with any of my news team.

Even a simple, constituency-level round table phone in can be a nightmare to produce.

You'll get far more calls than for any show outside pending period, for starters. An unfeasible number of those ringing in will be first time callers, who have, judging by their accents, only recently moved into the patch. They'll call you from a mobile with no geographic STD code. They'll be remarkably well briefed on one candidate's area of weakness; but they'll often be totally unaware of the weather outside their window. Or how to pronounce "Frizinghall".

As for those tweeting on the station's hashtag, getting those hits up and proving to the old news dogs there's more audience for the show online than on air; how many of those comments you're about to gleefully read out come from accounts recently created, with maybe a hundred or so (very generic) tweets and a modest number of followers? Worth checking.

Back on the streets a straightforward battlebus stop can be fraught with danger for the unsuspecting journo. My advice - get there early, it's amazing what you'll see.

Tony Blair's team once scheduled an encounter with the yoof vote at a MacDonald's just off the M606.

The PM would arrive, nod understandingly whilst first-time voters outlined their concerns, eat a burger in a suitably non-weird way and then scoot off to meet business hopefuls, or community leaders, or marginal voters at the next photogenic location.

We of the Fourth Estate could then ask said yoof what they - as ordinary young voters - thought of him.

Except these young voters were far from ordinary. They were mostly Young Labour supporters who all, spontaneously, had decided to converge on that cafe ahead of Blair's 'unpublicised' stop. I recall Tony was well thought of by a clear majority.

The tories do exactly the same, of course. Our scene moves on to a B&Q in Thornbury, where a busload of elderly Conservative supporters had all decided to go DIY shopping at the same time.

I'm not one for stereotypes, but the party lass in charge of handling the media that day was posh. She was seriously out of her depth. There were tabloid snappers in the pack, and they'd decided they wanted their picture. John. And Norma. With a trolley.

The B&Q manager was all too pleased to showcase his BOGOF offers, so quickly filled a trolley to the specifications the snappers demanded. By the time the Prime Minister and his good lady arrived the deed was done. They walked past the prop without a second glance, of course, but in a blaze of flash bulbs the guys got the shot they wanted with the trolley in the foreground and the nation's first couple behind.

Ambushes can be laid on both sides.

After carefully waiting for the coachload of party faithful to move on to the next stop, I approached a couple in the hardware aisle. What did they make of John Major's appeal for their loyalty?

"Oh I don't know, love" the woman replied. "We're only 'ere for an 'ook" chimed in her husband.

Guess what I used to finish the vox pop?

Caveat Journo.


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