David Cameron’s invitation to ITN to film his family having breakfast with their handicapped son Ivan was yet another illustration of his Blair-like charm offensive to win sympathetic media coverage.
In their new book, A Century of Spin, the authors suggest Cameron’s Conservatives are nothing more than "a mirror image" of New Labour. I would go further: when it comes to the creation of his media persona, Cameron’s tactics are a virtual carbon copy of the strategies used to promote Tony Blair.
David Miller and William Dinan are to be congratulated on their detailed expose of the close and interlocking links between Cameron, his advisers, the media and the public relations and advertising industries.
Cameron has already put these networks to good use: mutually constructive relations between the Conservative Party and the executives and editors of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers have not only been revived but are closer now than they have been for years, thanks in large part to the influence of the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson who was appointed Cameron’s director of communications in May 2007.
Almost intuitively Cameron knows how to press the right buttons when it comes to massaging the egos of editors and journalists. At the annual lunch of the Journalists’ Charity (6.3.2008) Coulson looked on as pleased as punch as Cameron praised newspapers like the Sun for their campaigning journalism.
Here was the Tory leader underlining his support for the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail group. He agreed their relationship had to be "edgy, stormy, never cosy" but politicians had to recognise the effectiveness of "great press campaigns", whether it was the Observer and the Sun in support of forces’ families and the scandal of tv phone-ins or the efforts of the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times in exposing abuses in Mps’ pay and allowances.
"I respect the British press for the great campaigns and great stories you run to keep our democracy lively and responsible."
Cameron was just as supportive over the continued self-regulation of the press under the aegis of the Press Complaints Commission. "I think the PCC seems to have settled down…I think the system is working better than it has done…I certainly have no plans to change self-regulation".
The message could not have been clearer to the assembled journalists than if the speech had been written by a press baron of old: here was Cameron showing support for the continued commercial freedom of Britain’s media proprietors, just the sort of billet-doux which could encourage Murdoch to abandon Labour and switch back to the Conservatives.
A Century of Spin explores Cameron’s early years at Conservative Central Office where he first met Steve Hilton, now his most senior political adviser and strategy guru.
My first contact with Cameron and Hilton was in the lead up to the 1992 general election when they formed part of what became known as the brat pack recruited by Shaun Woodward, the former producer and editor of That’s Life, who was then the party’s director of communications.
Cameron, then 25, was head of the political section which prepared campaign briefings for John Major and the party chairman, Chris Patten, before their daily press conferences. Hilton, then 22, was campaign co-ordinator.
Some of Woodward’s election stunts seemed to have been based on cast-off scripts from That’s Life and in assembling a team which included young ex-Etonians like Cameron, the Conservatives provided plenty of material for sketch writers and columnists.
In his weekly column in Today, David Seymour castigated Chris Patten for having allowed the fate of John Major to rest in "a few clammy hands" of what he mockingly dubbed "Patten’s puppies". ( Today, 19.3.92)
On one celebrated occasion -- right in the middle of the row over the Jennifer’s ear election broadcast -- the brat pack had been assembled outside Central Office to act as cheerleaders for what Maurice Saatchi promised would be "a strong visual message".
Laid out on the pavement was a large wooden model of a factory and written on the chimneys were words "investment", "jobs" and "recovery". No sooner were the television cameras in place than a steamroller trundled into Smith Square. Its livery was funereal, painted black and the only splash of colour was a red L-plate of the kind featured in the latest Saatchi and Saatchi poster.
Sean Holden, the Conservatives’ head of broadcasting, told me the visual and audio impact would be great on television and radio. "We are trying to talk to the C2s and this will get the message across to them that their jobs are at risk if Labour get elected."
Hilton, who was responsible for liaison with Saatchi and Saatchi, was equally excited a few days later when he told me that the party’s latest election broadcast would include a flashing message urging viewers to ring the Labour Party’s headquarters -- and by the way block their telephone lines -- in order to protest at the way Neil Kinnock was denigrating Britain’s achievements.
The 1992 election campaign was an encouraging baptism of fire for the likes of Cameron and Hilton. John Major’s victory against the odds gave them both an invaluable insight into the unforgiving world of politics and the media and the need to dream up an endless stream of photo-opportunities.
ITN’s fly-on-the-wall footage of Cameron having breakfast with his family (ITN 13.3.2008) mirrored similar photo-opportunities with Tony Blair and his children. The Conservatives were desperate to build-up interest in their family friendly policies and what better way than to allow the kind of controlled access which the Blairs insisted on.
Needless to say the Sun gave its wholehearted endorsement. Its political editor, George Pascoe-Watson, believed Cameron had been right to highlight his party’s family credentials and had nothing to hide. "His life is his life and he has to cope with his son’s disability as thousands do every day". (Sun, 14.3.2008).
When some commentators suggested it could be a huge miscalculation and backfire, Cameron had the soundbite to hand: "I’m asking people a very big thing, which is to elect me as their Prime Minister. And I think people have a right to know a bit more about you, your life and your family, what makes you tick, and what informs your thinking".
When on the long march to the 1997 general election, Blair could hardly have put it any better. The Conservatives’ media-savvy strategies have been given a hard edge with the help of Coulson, a tabloid journalist to his finger tips and there is no doubt media sentiment is on the move.
My sensation is that just as in the dying days of John Major’s government, many journalists are preparing to vote C…by which I mean vote C for change. A Century of Spin is going to need updating a little sooner than Miller and Dinan might have thought.
A Century of Spin by David Miller and William Dinan, Pluto Press.
Election 92 by Nicholas Jones, BBC Books.