Nick Jones

No wonder there were complaints from Downing Street about the four national newspapers which printed photographs of the Prime Minister wrapped in a Mickey Mouse towel as he struggled to change out of his swimming trunks on a beach in Cornwall. As he and his wife Samantha had already provided a pre-arranged photo-opportunity earlier in week, the couple had assumed they would be left alone for the rest of their holiday.

But what No.10’s media minders had not taken into account was the fact that the Prime Minister’s run of summer holidays – four in four months – had become a story line in itself and their holiday snaps had far greater news value than usual.

Whereas in previous years the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Times might have respected Cameron’s privacy, the temptation was too great; the Prime Minister sunburnt belly and Samantha’s obvious amusement as her husband tried to pull up his shorts were a gift for the headline writers.

For once Cameron’s sixth sense about how to play along with the whims of the national press seemed to have deserted him. He had left himself open to the charge that he appeared more than comfortable flaunting the fact he and his family were having a magical run of summer breaks while many other families, hit by hard by harsh economic times, would think they were lucky to have had one holiday, let alone four.

From the moment he first bid for the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 Cameron has been willing to provide far greater access for photographers and television crews than most previous party leaders or Prime Ministers.  Indeed his willingness to allow himself and his family to feature in endless photo-opportunities – and his own ease in front of camera – has endured far longer than most seasoned publicists would have predicted.

 

Now that the spell has been broken and national newspapers can no longer be trusted to keep to the agreement that one pre-arranged holiday photo shoot should suffice, the Downing Street director of communications Craig Oliver will have to rethink the Prime Minister’s approach. If family outings are to become a target for the paparazzi and enthusiasts waving camera phones, the news media might find that access becomes ever more tightly controlled.

 

In the event the Camerons’ family holiday in Cornwall was curtailed by the Prime Minister’s need to return to Downing Street because of a suspected chemical attack in Syria. But international crises apart, Cameron needed no reminding that following his swim off the beach at Polzeath he had inadvertently provided the news media with a set of embarrassing images that will have of life of their own in the photo libraries of newspapers and magazines.

 

Downing Street did intervene on his behalf to try to get editors to respect the Camerons’ privacy on the grounds that the Prime Minister and his wife had – as agreed with No.10 in advance – been photographed together earlier in their stay. There had been similar pre-arranged photo shoots during his three other holidays – in the Scottish island of Jura, the Algarve and Ibiza and those had sufficed with the Camerons then being left alone by the media.

 

David and Samantha’s patience with photographers and film crews has far outlasted that of Tony and Cherie Blair who, after similar invasions of their privacy, imposed strict controls on access during their holidays and rarely ever indulged the media by providing a family photo shoot.        

 

 

 

Cameron’s immediate predecessor Gordon Brown was even stricter: when he and his wife Sarah visited the Olympic Games in Beijing he purposely avoided sitting next to his two sons to make sure they could not be photographed together.  In 2008 the then Labour Prime Minister pointedly mocked his Conservative opponent for having allowed his children to become “props” not people.

But Cameron has always argued that party leaders and Prime Ministers have to be comfortable with what for most people would be an unprecedented level of media intrusion and he has never been afraid to exploit his family life for political purposes.

 

Brown did attempt to soften his image in preparation for his final putsch to succeed Tony Blair but from the outset he found he was continually being upstaged by the newly-elected Conservative leader.  Cameron had no compunction about demonstrating his own prowess in front of camera. Ahead of the 2006 party conferences the Tories launched WebCameron, a website for video blogs posted by a would-be Prime Minister.

 

His first webcam showed him washing up in the kitchen while the family ate breakfast. “Watch out BBC, ITV and Channel 4, we’re the new competition.” Cameron said he wanted to offer “behind-the-scenes access” so that people had “a direct link” and could see that politicians were not “a race apart”.

 

There were glimpses of his wife Samantha, a cradle containing baby Arthur and the sound of constant interruptions from Nancy as her father attempted to present some of the key messages of the conference.  He said more work needed to be done on his speech but “right now, I’m going to wash up the porridge.”

 

The Camerons’ Christmas card was a family photograph with Ivan, their disabled son (who died in 2009) in his father’s arms.  Brown insisted, unlike the Blairs, that his family would never be used in his seasonal greetings. 

 

By the 2008 party conferences, well over a year into his Premiership, Brown had clearly become exercised by the regular images of the Camerons en famille and repeated media references to the disparity in the way the two sets of parents behaved.

Cameron defended his preference for allowing media access in a report by BBC political correspondent Carole Walker who had made a point in her commentary of explaining why the Browns refused to allow their sons to be filmed.

 

Again there were shots of Cameron having breakfast, this time with Ivan; footage of him caring for his disabled son were a regular feature of television reports; and he gave an uninhibited explanation for the presence of a television camera at the family’s breakfast table.

 

“The public have a right to know quite a bit about you, your life and your family, what makes you tick and informs your thinking...Nothing influences me more than my family...so this is a natural thing to do.”

 

I think a formative experience in establishing Cameron’s faith in the value of media exposure was his stint as policy co-ordinator supporting the former Conservative party leader Michael Howard in the Tories’ 2005 general election campaign.

 

Howard’s campaign director was the Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby, then on his first foray into British politics.  One of Crosby’s tasks was to help humanise the presentation of Howard about whom the former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe had once said, “There is something of the night about him”.

 

One feature of the campaign was “”Michael Howard introduces his family”, a US style family testimonial in which Howard’s son and daughter paid tribute to their father.  Howard had an upbeat assessment of the Conservatives’ chances of defeating Tony Blair:

 

“One day you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren, as I will tell mine, ‘I was there, I did my bit.  I played my part. I helped win that famous election victory.’”

 

One of the most insightful comments in Gary Gibbon’s report for Channel 4 News was from a snatched interview with Crosby: “Everyone in public life has a family.  It’s important that people in Britain know Michael Howard is just like them and that he wants to do his best for the party.”

 

Who knows what the Prime Minister’s newly-hired strategist for the 2015 campaign thinks of the holiday snaps from Polzeath and those embarrassing images of Cameron’s contortions changing under a Mickey Mouse towel?

 

Wisely Cameron had been quick to repair the damage; his next move, after realising he had been caught off guard on camera, was to call in at the nearest public house for a glass of the local bitter – the image which the Sun faithfully reproduced in preference to the shots from the beach.

 

Perhaps in retrospect, as Lynton Crosby looks ahead to the 2015 campaign, the Conservatives’ strategist might say that the holiday snaps do after all show how Cameron really is like the bloke next door, he has sun-burnt belly and enjoys nothing more than a pint of beer.

 

Illustrations:  Daily Mail, 23.8.2013; Daily Mirror, 23.8.2013; Daily Mirror, 27.5.2013; Sun, 31.5.2013.