Lynton Crosby’s appointment as David Cameron’s head of campaign strategy is the clearest signal yet that it will be “business as usual” when the Conservative Party tries again to manipulate the news agenda in the long lead-up to the 2015 general election.
Like his two most infamous fellow travellers – Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson – Crosby has an innate understanding of the ups and downs of 24-hour news... and the ruthlessness that is needed to take on the British media.
Crosby shares with the two ACs – Campbell and Coulson – an ability to identify key election messages and then reinforce them relentlessly through press campaigns. All three have seemed to get a kick out of riding the tiger of the British news agenda.
At the age of fifty-five, Crosby is also one of the great survivors among political spin doctors having been dubbed the “Wizard of Oz” for his success in helping to pull off four election victories for the Australian Prime Minister John Howard between 1996 and 2007.
His one set back in the UK, his failure to pilot Michael Howard to victory for the Conservatives in the 2005 general election, was followed by his double whammy of success in the London Mayoral elections running Boris Johnson’s 2008 campaign and then his re-election in 2012.
Each of the three big Cs have demonstrated their undoubted flair in the dark arts of the spin doctor. In recent British election campaigns they have been adept at orchestrating stories which fed into “campaigning journalism” – the trick of identifying and then supplying newspaper campaigns with exclusive stories which play along to a favoured political agenda.
- · In the 1997 general election Alastair Campbell helped Labour pin the word “sleaze” around the neck of the faltering Conservative Prime Minister John Major.
- · In 2010 Coulson fed Conservative-supporting newspapers with a diet of stories which boosted David Cameron and succeeded in labelling Gordon Brown as a bad tempered “ditherer”.
- · In 2012 Crosby master-minded a relentless campaign to depict Ken Livingstone as a re-tread and a failure, so as to ensure Boris Johnson’s re-election as Mayor of London.
“Campaigning journalism” is a favourite tool of the political spin doctor and is held up as a corner stone of a “free press”. It is a message which is being championed by leading Conservatives as they line up behind newspaper proprietors and their front organisation the Free Speech Network which is making a last ditch attempt to maintain the self regulation of the press.
As Westminster awaits the report and recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, the newspapers have been printing a constant run of stories, commentaries, editorials and also by-lined articles by senior Tories, which hammer home the industry’s belief that an independent press – free from state control – is a fundamental part of British democracy.
Conservative politicians have justified the proprietors’ plea for continued self regulation of the press by parading their commitment to campaigning journalism – which, over the years, has probably been of greater value to the Conservatives thanks to the Tory leanings of much of the press.
In appointing the “Wizard of Oz”, David Cameron will be hoping that Lynton Crosby will prove as successful as Andy Coulson was in identifying issues which attract the support of tabloid newspapers and can be used to sustain campaigns which support Conservative aims while at the same time denigrating Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Andy Coulson’s first success was in exploiting the 2009 scandal over MPs’ expenses and in being able to demonstrate that David Cameron was clamping down hard on Tory MPs who had abused the system while the Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was dithering and failing to take action.
Another equally successful campaign was to get Cameron to stand shoulder to shoulder with “Our Boys” whereas Brown was accused of failing to do enough to support British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Once Cameron was in Downing Street and Coulson was appointed the government’s Director of Communications, the Downing Street media machine swung firmly behind Conservative campaigns. In August 2010, within a month of the Coalition taking office, Cameron launched a hot line in the Sun for readers to expose benefit cheats – a key plank of the government’s bid to cut back on social security spending.
Perhaps Lynton Crosby’s greatest attribute is his ability to run a highly disciplined campaign and ensure that there is no deviation from the messages which are being promoted. Alastair Campbell’s great success in the 1997 general election was in devising story lines which underlined John Major’s inability to control the Conservative Party while at the same time promoting five clearly understood campaign promises which the Labour Party had printed on its election pledge card.
llustrations: Daily Mail, 19.11.2012; London Evening Standard 19.11.2012.