Party fun? Blair prefers the masochism strategy

Stand by for
the Pre-emptive Press Conference by the political SWAT unitsIn
television newsrooms all over Britain, groups of producers are
gathering in huddles to plan their strategy for the general election we
all know is coming in the next 10 weeks or so.

Meanwhile,
communication directors, political press officers and the sinister
strategic advisers behind the scenes are doing something very similar.
Both groups are trying to outsmart each other before battle is joined
and both sides are sending out small skirmishing parties to check the
lie of the land.

Secret intelligence reports suggest that none of
the political parties will be deploying conventional electioneering
weapons. There will be no battle buses (they became obsolete in the
mid- Nineties); there won’t even be the traditional daily press
conferences at which the political parties attempt to set the agenda
for the day.

In fact to date it’s not exactly clear how the
political parties are planning to engage with the fourth estate on
policy matters, but there was a small clue earlier this month when the
Conservatives announced a Monday morning press conference with leader
Michael Howard and shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin to unveil their
taxcutting policies.

That same morning Alan Milburn – Labour’s
election supremo– stole a march with his own hastily-called press
conference scheduled 15 minutes earlier, in which he tried to rubbish
the Conservatives’plans.

You might think this was taking rapid rebuttal to extremes, but it’s a sign of how fast the parties intend to move.

Stand
by then for the PPC – the Pre-emptive Press Conference – mounted by the
party political SWAT units wherever and whenever needed.

As in
the previous election, we’ve heard about the parties’ plans to bypass
cynical networks and national newspapers and go straight to the more
open-minded folk on local newspapers, radio stations and regional TV
shows. In truth this may be the intention, but it’s rarely the outcome.

One
thing that has changed in the past few years is the parties’
preoccupation with daytime TV. I doubt if any politician ever watches
much daytime television, but programmes such as Richard and Judy ,
GMTV, The Wright Stuff and Frost are clearly preferred over the more
adversarial approaches found on Newsnight, Panorama or Channel 4 News.

The
traditional one-plus-one interview or oneplus- three studio debate,
which was the mainstay of campaign coverage on most news programmes,
seems to have fallen out of favour somewhat with the political parties.

They
can’t be avoided completely, of course, but these days politicians
prefer to be filmed making speeches or meeting ordinary folk in
relatively controlled circumstances.

Some of the political
advisers I’ve been speaking to talk about “keeping it real”, by which I
think they mean keeping journalists and professional interviewers –
especially famous ones – out of the picture as much as possible.

TV
news editors also pray for “real moments” – those unscripted
encounters and incidents where the minders and spin doctors lose
control and we see the politicians and voters up close and personal.

The
highlights of the 2001 campaign are generally agreed to be the John
Prescott punch and the moment when Tony Blair was confronted by Sharon
Storer, the relative of a cancer sufferer who took Tony Blair to task
for several minutes outside a Birmingham hospital, in front of the TV
cameras.

It was the punch and the row that led the bulletins, not the party manifesto launch that was being made on the same day.

At
the time the Sharon Storer incident was seen as a major PR screw-up for
New Labour, though in retrospect they prefer to regard it as a positive
experience – a real-life encounter which proves the Prime Minister can
interact warmly and candidly even with those who disagree with him.

At
the height of the public opposition to the Gulf War, Labour advisers
were so convinced by Tony Blair’s ability to take the heat that they
developed the so-called “masochism strategy”

whereby the prime
minister deliberately confronted his critics, most notably on a Tonight
Special where he was roughed up verbally by a group of women anti-war
protesters.

It appears this strategy is still firmly in place.

Earlier
this month Blair got down with some young folk on Channel 4 and last
week he agreed to be questioned directly by four different groups of
voters in a single day on Five.

I think we can assume that
Blair’s people believe he’s in his element during this sort of
encounter, though in the event I think he found it a pretty gruelling
experience being grilled by around 30 mainly hostile individuals in
two-anda- half hours of live TV.

These raw meet-the-leader
sessions do carry some political risk when the party machines have no
control over whom the leaders are meeting or what they’re being asked –
and there were one or two hairy moments on Meet the Prime Minister day
on Five.

Of course, no election coverage is complete without at
least one weekly or nightly gimmick to keep the less politically
literate viewer awake.

I know a couple of channels promising a
regular spot analysing politicians’ body language and whether Brown
backslapping Blair was a comradely gesture or a sign of sheer envy.

There
will doubtless be personality reporters taking the nation’s political
temperature from their customised Winnebagos and there may even be a
few Dom Joly-style pranksters out there along with the real
troublemakers from various direct action groups.

“Spin” in all
its real and imagined manifestations will be analysed ad nauseam , and
politicians will complain that the real issues are being ignored in
favour of the froth of politics.

In the end I think personalities
will take centre stage as they always tend to and the lead players –
Blair, Brown, Howard and Kennedy – should make for some decent drama.

Finally,
my favourite general election proposal is for an endurance format
called “Extreme Voter”. In this reality show, a group of first-time
voters is forced to live in Guantanamo Bay-style cells for the entire
campaign.

They get no exercise and their only diversion is a bank of TV monitors showing 24-hour campaign coverage.

The last one to crack wins an all-expenses paid holiday to the nice bit of Cuba.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five

Next week: Janice Turner

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