ook: "It’s no surprise the public turns off – in terms of TV and turnout"
Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s spin doctor, accused the media of assuming the role of the Opposition in the absence of a strong political party that could challenge Labour’s parliamentary majority.
Speaking to Sir David Frost in an interview filmed for the News World Conference in Dublin, the Prime Minister’s director of communications and strategy admitted that the relationship between the Government and the media had not been "healthy" during Labour’s early years in power.
The former Daily Mirror journalist accepted that New Labour had "given the impression that we were controlling and manipulative", but added that the media had also played its part in "poisoning" political debate.
"With the size of our majority there was going to be less debate," said Campbell. "But I think the assumption was also building in the media that the Opposition was useless and, although it may have been unspoken, the media thought therefore: ‘It’s our job to do it for them.’"
Campbell said he cancelled his daily briefings when they "started getting more coverage" than the policies. Changes in the Government’s communications strategy were also aimed at fostering "more mature and grown-up dialogue", he said.
Tony Blair’s recent interviews with Jeremy Paxman were part of its strategy of finding "opportunities within the media for greater engagement and access to the Prime Minister," Campbell said.
But he criticised the media for crossing the line between "scepticism and cynicism" in covering politics.
"As a journalist I was sceptical, but I always had a basic respect for the politicians’ motives for being there, that they were doing it because they believed in what they were doing," he said. "But these days the media thinks its job is to persuade the public that they’re all a bunch of shysters and in it for themselves."
Robin Cook, Leader of the House of Commons, speaking via a satellite link, echoed Campbell’s criticism that the media was too preoccupied with "process". Too much coverage was "village gossip between correspondents and politicians" and too little about how people would be affected by policies, he argued.
"The story is too often about the process and how a decision has been made and not enough about outcome," said Cook. "It’s all which politician is up and which is down. It’s not surprising the public turns off in terms of the TV and turnout."
But Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news, dismissed Cook’s argument that stories such as the departures of transport secretary Stephen Byers and his press secretary Martin Sixsmith were of marginal interest to viewers.
He added that the stories were significant because "people had been caught lying" and that politicians had to regain the respect of the public. "It’s a question of politicians’ integrity," he argued. "Part of our job is to hold them to account. They need to reform the way that they behave and until they do they won’t get an unaggressive relationship with the media."