Channel 4 political correspondent Michael Crick has given the Conservative general election PR team just one out of ten saying media control at this election is tighter than any other he has experienced.
Crick complained on Twitter last week about the Conservatives pre-selecting which journalists would get to ask questions at press conferences.
Press Gazette asked him to rate the Tory general election team on transparency, honesty and access for journalists.
Giving them one out of ten, Crick recalled previous elections where parties would hold a half- hour press conference every morning, generally chaired by the party leader. Crick added: “Margaret Thatcher would pick hands at random really and everybody got to ask something, and indeed I recall a couple of occasions where we ran out of questions.
“She didn’t feel the need to know in advance who was going to ask the questions, she didn’t feel the need to know what the question was. I imagine she would have been pretty annoyed if she thought that members of her party were trying to filter questions.”
Press Gazette understands that the system of pre-arranging which journalists get to ask questions of the Prime Minister is seen by Tory PR staff as a way of ensuring that a range of journalists from different titles get to ask questions.
Tory insiders say that journalists are invited to give prior notice of what questions they are going to ask but this is not obligatory.
Crick said: “I think the whole thing of agreeing who is going to ask the questions and then telling them what your question is going to be is not right.
“We’re political journalists, we’re meant to be holding these people to account.”
Crick said he overheard a press officer asking reporters what questions they were going to ask: “I overheard him doing this with one reporter who told him a bit about what they planned to ask and then two other reporters told me that the party had done the same with them.
“One of them said that it was made pretty clear to them that if they didn’t say what they were going to ask, then their question would be withdrawn.
“Now, this is an absurd and excessive amount of control which totally undermines the whole theme of their campaign about ‘strong and stable’.
“If she’s strong then why do they need to know who’s asking the questions and what these questions are going to be?”
The Conservatives have been approached for comment.
Crick said, however, that May held a press conference on Wednesday, calling this “progress” and adding how her campaign appears to have become more “relaxed” in the past week.
Asked how he rated the Liberal Democrat and Labour campaigns using the same criteria, he gave them seven and six out of ten respectively.
Although he noted a “major cock-up” by the Lib Dems at the launch of their manifesto on Wednesday.
He said: “They invited all the broadcasters to Holland Park School for their manifesto launch but they only actually brought one paper copy of the manifesto.
“It’s very difficult to read a 95-page manifesto on your mobile phone, we had to do our interviews all on the basis of reading it on our iPhones. This wasn’t satisfactory and they should’ve planned for that, so we ended up having to go round to the Lib Dem headquarters to pick up a copy.
“That was after we’d interviewed Farron, but by then it was a bit late.”
Crick added that the Lib Dems are generally “a bit more relaxed about things” and tend to be happy to answer questions.
He said the Labour Party appears to have become more friendly towards journalists as the campaign has gone on.
He said: “For a long time there’s been an aggression around Corbyn and being surrounded by cameras, he’s just not used to a scrum of coverage, particularly outside his house. He hates it. Miliband used to hate it as well.
“The last three events with Corbyn haven’t been too bad, I think he’s relaxing a bit, and as I say the thousands of people at the campaign events makes you feel good. There was an unpleasantness towards the media at one point. Not in this election, this was mostly earlier on in his leadership, particularly early days.
“I think he’s learnt that that isn’t a very sensible way of behaving, so we’ll just see how it goes.”
However he was critical of the behaviour of Labour after it restricted access for Buzzfeed after an interview with Jim Waterson in which Corbyn said he wouldn’t surrender his position as leader if Labour was to lose this election.
Crick described this as a “pretty shabby way” of behaving.
The Labour Party has also been subject to criticism for not inviting certain newspapers to its events, with journalists at pro-Conservative Sun complaining that they are no longer invited to his events. Steve Hawkes, deputy political editor at paper, previously tweeted: “Jeremy Corbyn complains his message isn’t being heard – only ‘friendly’ papers were invited up to Harlow today.”