Regionals attack politicians for stage-managed campaign

By Sarah Lagan

Some regional journalists have criticised the general election
campaign for being too controlled, with “on-message” politicians
refusing to answer their questions.

One man who has rubbed regional journalists up the wrong way is John Prescott, on his whistle-stop battle-bus tour.

The
News in Portsmouth claimed a last-minute visit to the city by Prescott
was “stage-managed” with reporters given little time to prepare
questions.

“He was very dismissive and wouldn’t answer our questions,” said the paper’s political editor David Maddox.

“Ministers are especially bad and turn up with no warning so there is little chance to meet up with them.”

Prescott
made national headlines after telling South Wales Argus reporter Mark
Choueke to “bugger off” and called him an “amateur”. Express & Star
chief features writer and columnist Peter Rhodes was excluded from a
Prescott press conference. Many journalists found that even when they
did get access to the big players, answers were brief and on message.

Larry
Neild, city editor at the Daily Post, Liverpool, was given unrestricted
access to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown along with other regional press,
to the exclusion of the nationals.

“They weren’t experts on
provincial problems but I wouldn’t expect them to be. We said we need a
new bridge across the Mersey and they said they recognised the problem.
It was like saying there’ll be daylight tomorrow.

“I’ve
interviewed every leading politician since Harold Wilson and this is
one of the most glitzy, US style, contrived and sanitised.”

Editor
of the Isle of Wight County Press Brian Dennis believes that apart from
many high-profile politicians not being keyed into local issues on the
island, the campaign as a whole has been low key and on-message. “It’s
nothing you couldn’t make up and write yourself,” he said. “There’s no
good old-fashioned political hustings where we can have a good go at
them.”

The Eastern Daily Press’s request for a Q & A between
Tony Blair and its readers has so far fallen on deaf ears but generally
politicians have been cooperative.

Assistant editor Paul Durrant
said: “It may have helped having Charles Clarke as a local MP, he was
happy to talk about what we wanted to talk about.

“Charles Kennedy has paid two visits but there are one or two key Liberal Democrat targets in East Anglia.”

Regional
affairs correspondent at The Journal, Newcastle, Ross Smith said
campaigning has been thin on the ground as there are few marginal seats.

Promises
of one-to-ones are broken, two reporters may be offered three minutes
each or six together, often due to lateness, he claimed.

But some
editors report good cooperation from the political parties keen to
target the regional press, especially when it covers marginal seats.

Aberdeen
Press and Journal editor Derek Tucker said being in an area with a lot
of key marginal seats assures a top profile turn-out. “I don’t think
the importance of the regional press is lost on politicians generally,”
he said.

“Nationals are great for getting sound bites but they know that the real footslogging needs to be done around the regions.”

South
Wales Echo editor Richard Williams was also optimistic, saying
politicians were “falling over themselves to be helpful to our
journalists”

and the party leaders answered questions in a Q & A session.

Deputy
editor at the Birmingham Evening Mail Colin Clark said: “Readers,
including the wife of a sacked MG Rover worker, were given the chance
to put Blair in the firing line.

We set up an exclusive meeting between him and the readers and the worker’s wife was impressed.”

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