Gordon Brown’s formative years as a politician were spent in opposition fighting the Conservatives. Once Labour were in power and he became Chancellor, Brown was in effect in “opposition” again, promoting himself at the expense of Tony Blair. For the first time the Prime Minister has found himself continually on the defensive. In a speech at Coventry University (22.5.2008), Nicholas Jones argued that the only way Brown can deal with an avalanche of negative publicity is to face up to the news media head on and adopt a far more open and transparent communications strategy.
Voting is taking place today in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election and all the signs point to a significant by-election victory for David Cameron; the Conservatives certainly have the momentum, Labour are struggling. Obviously at the heart of Gordon Brown’s disastrous showing in the opinion polls and the recent council elections are the current economic woes. He is taking the brunt of our combined angst over the credit crunch. “It’s the economy stupid” is what it is all about. As British Prime Minister, he has no control over world events. Who knows how deep the recession will be.
But disenchantment with Labour -- and with Gordon Brown in particular -- runs much deeper than that. All Labour seems to be offering is the line that they will continue to be more competent than the Conservatives. But where is the vision? What -- as the political propagandists ask -- is the narrative? What is Brown trying to achieve? While it is true to say that Brown has become the victim of events outside his control, he is nonetheless partly architect of his own misfortune.
I believe that in the face of an avalanche of negative publicity he does need a new strategy when it comes to communicating with the public, not only for the government but also on his own behalf. Before setting out how I think he should face up to a hostile news media, I have to explain how the Brown of today has been shaped by his experiences. His formative years in Westminster were spent in Opposition. He became renowned for the brilliance of his attacks against the Conservative. And once he became Chancellor he could rarely be faulted on the way he promoted himself.
But in a way, during the decade he was Labour Chancellor, he was in effect in opposition again, this time seeking to project himself at the expense of Tony Blair. What Gordon Brown had not previously had experience of was being continually on the defensive, unable to steer the news in his direction and unable regain command of the news agenda. Perhaps the Northern Rock calamity was the start of it, the moment when his own track record as chancellor began to catch up with him. And from then on, of course, it has been downhill all the way culminating in the in the fiasco over the abolition of the 10pence tax rate and then, when it was clear five million were losing out, the cobbling together of a £2.7 billion package of tax cuts.
Whatever we think of the wider economic picture and the political fortunes of the Labour Party, there is no doubt that Gordon Brown has real form when it comes to spin and the black arts of media manipulation. When he announced last July that he was turning his back on spin -- that he wanted a more open approach to communication, that he was going to rein in the political spin doctors -- I was encouraged. I thought he really meant it. For the first few months his administration really was a breath of fresh air. But the more desperate the events have become, the more dependent he has been on the discredited spin routines of the New Labour years and they have hardly done him any favours.
What has to be remembered about Brown is that from his introduction to politics he has been an avid student of how to manipulate the media. After his student days, Brown joined Scottish Television working as a presenter and editor. He became an MP in 1983. By the time I returned to political reporting in the late 1980s -- when Labour were still in opposition but beginning their fight back under Neil Kinnock -- Brown had already made his name. He seemed to have an unerring news sense and a sharp turn of phrase. Indeed in one of my earliest books, Soundbites and Spin Doctors, I named Brown as being one of the most responsive and co-operative Mps I had encountered.
Indeed it was already becoming clear that he had a slavish dedication to the daily news agenda and as the years went by, as he rose up through the shadow cabinet, he regularly left the Labour Party’s publicity department trailing in his wake. Frequently the party’s public relations team were unable to keep up with his press releases, newspaper articles and non-stop television and radio appearances. After John Smith’s first heart attack in the autumn of 1988, Brown was propelled to the forefront of the shadow Treasury team and began to be seen as the heir apparent.
On one occasion, after the 1989 Wall Street crash, I remember how he turned down my request for an interview. He felt he had to defer to John Smith. The slot was immediately taken by another of Labour’s political opportunist, Bryan Gould, then trade and industry spokesman. Later, when I pointed out to Brown that the main news bulletins on Saturday and Sunday evenings have some of the largest audiences of the week, he thanked me for my advice and never missed another such opportunity.
To this day, time and again you can see Brown popping up on the weekend news bulletins. In that respect he is a news junkie and the question of how he can stand back from doing all these immediate responses and have the space and time to think more clearly about his media strategy, is one of the issues I want to address. What happened after he became the shadow trade and industry secretary and finally shadow chancellor was that Brown just could not say no to any opportunity to publicise himself. Attempts to lighten his load were frequently rebuffed and it was only after repeated warnings that all his efforts were becoming self defeating, that he finally began to wean himself off the need for a daily dose of publicity.
Coming up alongside Brown -- advised and assisted by Peter Mandelson -- was none other than Tony Blair who had a much more thoughtful and engaging approach when being interviewed. Instead of the staccato-like delivery of Brown, framed in the kind of sentences which only journalists tend to write, Blair emerged as a smooth and much more accomplished communicator. I wrote a piece for the Media Guardian pointing out that Mandelson seemed be giving more assistance to Blair rather than Brown and it provoked a torrent of abuse. Mandelson’s putdown was classic: “I feel such hurt…What an incredibly clever, tendentious and distorted piece of writing…You have abused trust and friendship, all because you want to make yourself a media star…You have done a hatchet job…I hope I never have any contact with you ever again.”
Of course the rest is history: Mandelson was on the point of switching his support to Blair and the feuding continues to this day between the Blairites and the Brownites. But that was the great tragedy: Blair attracted the division one political operators of his generation and Brown was left with division two. And I am afraid it shows to this day: Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Philip Gould, Lord Levy -- all the manipulators and fixers who served Blair so well -- have gone and Brown’s team of replacements are nothing like as effective as their predecessors.
What happened after the landslide victory of 1997 was that Brown remained the ultimate control freak. In opposition he had micro-managed the work of his aides such as Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan and he continued to do so in government. Behind the scenes they briefed assiduously on Brown’s behalf, distributing leaked documents and trailing future announcements. When it came to the micro-tactics of deciding which story to leak and identifying those journalists who would be briefed, Brown has always been hands on. And if we look back on the decade Brown was chancellor you can see how successful he was not only in promoting himself but also in planting those news stories which sowed doubts and ill feeling about Blair and the Blairites. It was Ed Balls who was singled out by John Prescott in his memoirs for briefing un-attributably on Brown’s behalf. Prescott said: “He (Balls) was part of the Gordon group, running around, spreading stories.”
The damage that can be done by uncontrolled spin was all too evident in the reckless way the Brown’s acolytes talked up the possibility of a snap election -- only for the Prime Minister to call a halt at the last moment and in the process do himself incalculable political damage. Ever since then the Conservatives have made sure the word “ditherer” has been hung round the Prime Minister’s neck, just as Labour pinned “sleaze” to John Major. Brown did so well to begin with and won plaudits for the way he handled the terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, the floods and the foot and mouth outbreak, calamities for which he could hardly personally be blamed. His serious if rather dour manner suited the occasion and he proved most effective in keeping the country informed.
But the aborted snap election and the dithering over what to do about Northern Rock -- and then the eventual bail out -- marked the start of what has become an ever steeper decline. Brown’s response in communication terms has been to rely on the routines of old:
*He has increased the number of political spin doctors, known as special advisers. Their un-attributable briefings and uncontrolled spin have continued to be a cancer eating away at the probity of the government.
*He has continued to authorise the leaking in advance of government decisions, trailing the announcements with favoured journalists.
*He has peppered the pages of the national press with signed articles by himself and his cabinet colleagues. But they are nothing more than sticking plaster on gaping wounds. My file of Prime Ministerial articles is packed already.
Just look at the trailed stories, the decisions leaked in advance in the hope of getting publicity. Many are nothing more than dog whistle politics: they seek to re-assure voters that something is being done. But in fact they rarely live up to what was promised. Journalists find the tactic divisive : one newspaper gets the announcement as an exclusive and the rest are expected to follow up their opponent’s lead. Alastair Campbell always favoured this policy of divide and rule but it produces cynicism not just among journalists but more importantly among voters.
The promise of a ban on plastic bags is a classic example: “Banish the Bags” was the Daily Mail’s front page splash on Wednesday 27 February 2008, the start of a fourteen-page special demanding that plastic bags should be banned. Next day the Daily Mail hailed the success of its campaign: “M&S Banishes the Free Bag” (Daily Mail 28 February, 2008). Just guess who piled in next day: “Brown: the bags will be banished.” (Daily Mail 29 February 2008). There could hardly have been a clearer example of the Prime Minister pandering to the Mail agenda. And he did it again earlier this month: “Bin Tax will be dumped” (Daily Mail 5 May 2008) -- another exclusive claiming that the Prime Minister intended to woo back middle England by ditching plans to burden families with a tax on rubbish.
There has been a similar flurry of exclusives over Booze and Blades: “Brown blitz on blades” (Sun 14 January 2008) and “Blitz on shops peddling booze to kids” (Daily Mirror 3 March 2008). Brown has always made an art form out of trailing in advance whatever is to be announced in the Budget and this year has been no exception: “2p petrol hike is frozen…for now” (Sun 12 March 2008). The leaks were all as predicted:
“Tax hikes on booze and 4X4s” (thelondonpaper 12 March 2008)
And Brown -- never one to miss a front page -- was happy to endorse the Evening Standard’s campaign to persuade people to drink tap rather than bottled water: “Brown loses his bottles!” (Evening Standard 6 March 2008).
Notwithstanding all I have said, articles by a Prime Minister can be of significance and help guide and shape the politics of the week. The Observer’s exclusive last weekend “Brown says embryo research is key to life” (Observer 18 May 2008) was an important curtain raiser. The Prime Minister could not be accused of dithering: he used the article to make it abundantly clear that he supported the use of hybrid embryos and would vote in favour of the current upper time limit of 24 weeks for abortion. The majorities achieved, all on free votes, backed the line Brown had laid out and this did help steady the government’s nerves ahead of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. What was important was that Brown’s article was timed with precision; it had something to say; and it did set the news agenda. But the embryo and abortion article is the exception.
More often than not Brown’s micro-managing of the media has been confused and counter-productive. I think he needs to stand back, stop giving instant responses to every news story, and think long term about the government’s key objectives for what shows every sign of being a two-year run-up to the next election. He is in desperate need of a convincing narrative. If he had that, if he could demonstrate conviction and commitment about some specific and identifiable goals which the electorate could grasp and understand, then the spin might work.
Let us look back at two examples, under Thatcher and Blair. There was no doubt in the 1980s that curbing trade union power and dismantling the nationalised industries were over-arching objectives for Margaret Thatcher. The Conservative spin could not be faulted: unions were undemocratic, out of touch and too powerful; nationalised industries had forgotten how to serve the customer. There was equal clarity in New Labour’s assault on the Conservatives in the lead-up the 1997 general election: the country had had enough of the sleaze of the Tory years.
What Brown has to grasp is that such is the depth of the government’s unpopularity there is little likelihood of him being able to regain the news agenda. He is being abandoned even by the newspapers of Rupert Murdoch and his only chance of fighting back is to challenge a hostile news media head on. What I think Brown needs is an official spokesman -- or spokeswoman -- who is capable of promoting government policy, preferably by holding televised news briefings. He should think of something along the lines of the briefings for journalists at the White House by the presidential spokesman.
These briefings are on the record; they’re televised; they help shield the President from the immediate cut and thrust of the 24 news agenda; and they are far more transparent than our hole-in-the-corner system of lobby briefings. If Brown could only delegate the task of providing immediate responses to an open and upfront spokesperson, he could then devote more time to preparing himself for far fewer and more effective news conferences and interviews. I thought, for example, the careful and considered way he prepared for the embryo and abortion debates proves my point.
By opening up the process of communication rather than continuing to put so much emphasis on the micro-management of individual stories, Brown might find he spends less time fretting about the daily headlines and develops a programme which would command far more attention.
The culture of supplying un-attributable briefings to trusted journalists is deeply embedded in Brown’s psyche and as events have shown it is the off-the-record spin which so often has spiralled out of control, damaging Labour’s political fortunes and causing deep resentment within the party. During each successive drama there has been repeated appeals for the Prime Minister to halt the vicious cycle of briefing and counter-briefing which has so injured the feelings of those senior Labour politicians cast adrift during the Blair-Brown handover. By appointing an official spokesperson who could be upfront and open, Brown could begin to break free from the spin and subterfuge which dogged the Blair years.
Now that most of the press has turned against him, the Prime Minister has nothing to lose and nothing to fear by encouraging full transparency. Any advantage which the government once enjoyed from doing deals with individual newspapers has been lost in an avalanche of negative publicity. Instead, if all journalists and media outlets were provided with the same information at the same time, ministers would be able to steer clear of the quick fixes and perhaps find it easier to isolate and neutralise damaging un-attributable briefings.
There is a well rehearsed argument in Westminster against having an authoritative spokesman capable of giving televised briefings on the lines of the President’s press secretary at the White House. It is always said that ministers, not officials, should speak in Parliament on behalf of the government. But that convention hardly matters when ministers have so many opportunities to promote themselves whether by television, radio or on line. What is needed is an up-to-the-minute spokesperson able to fight the government’s corner and promote and explain its policies. Alastair Campbell tried for a few months to be upfront in his briefings, arguing the government’s case, but his “openness” was exposed as a sham when political correspondents found they were being double crossed: Campbell gave one line to the lobby and another to the select group of trusted correspondents to whom he was prepared to supply information on an un-attributable basis.
Brown has no hope of squaring up to the hostility of the press if he still thinks it is still possible to divide and rule. The instant access offered by televised briefings, websites and email mean there is no longer any excuse for not putting all sections of the news media on an equal footing. If the whole operation was fronted by an official spokesman who could be held publicly to account, the Prime Minister would not only refresh his relationship with journalists but might also begin to start restoring trust in his government.