Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

In his television documentary – Five Days That Changed Britain – the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson chides himself for his failure to have predicted that in the event of an inconclusive general election David Cameron might attempt to establish a coalition government. I too was taken totally by surprise by the boldness of Cameron’s ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer to Nick Clegg and his skill in negotiating a deal that paved the way for a joint Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration.

After the revelation that during the August holidays David Cameron paid a hitherto secret visit to Rupert Murdoch’s yacht off the Greek Islands, there have been more tell-tale signs that the Conservative leader is cosying up to the Murdoch press. In a signed article for the Sun (3.11.2008), Cameron was firmly on message in a double-page spread: “Tory chief hits out -- Bloated BBC out of touch with viewers”. Cameron hit all the right buttons: the licence fee should be reduced and the argument that the BBC needed to attract large audiences was “bogus”. But more importantly Cameron sided with Murdoch in arguing that the BBC should stop abusing its position by trying to compete with newspaper websites. Because of their heavy investment in online services -- some of which are beginning to make money -- it is essential from the Murdoch perspective that there should be no effective competition from the BBC. Cameron delivered just the line that he knew would appeal to Murdoch: “The squeezing and crushing or commercial competitors online or in publishing needs to be stopped”. Nicholas Jones says Cameron and his communications director Andy Coulson (just named pr professional of 2008) need no lessons on how to woo the Murdoch press: Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell blazed that self-same trail in the 1990s:




Hand to hand combat between the government and political correspondents would continue if the Conservatives were elected because an administration led by David Cameron would be just as determined to try to control the news agenda.

This was the conclusion of journalists and press officers at a seminar held by the Westminster Media Forum (1.7.2008). The two sides felt that the politicisation of civil service information officers, and the likelihood that any future government would find itself on the defensive, meant that further trench warfare was inevitable.

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.

Before Spin suggests there was once an age of innocence for government information officers, but Keith McDowall’s insider account of his time with the civil service in the 1960s and 1970s reveals that he was already trying out some of the routines that would later become common place under the likes of Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell.

In McDowall’s day, the “heavies” – i.e. the serious papers – were the only show in town: the highest accolade for a ministerial press officer was to secure a positive comment piece in the leader column of a national daily such as The Times.

By the 1980s, after switching to become the press supremo at the Confederation of British Industry, McDowall recalled the thrill he felt on finding that one of his stories had merited a favourable page one splash in the Sun, an achievement that still excites the spin doctors of today.

 Blurb for McDowall’s book castigates his successors in Downing Street and Whitehall for succumbing to the concept of spin, a media strategy that he considers “naïve and lacking in integrity”.

Before Spin captures the era when the national press dominated the news agenda, long before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, rolling television news and the constant reaction, and unpredictable impact, of social media.