7 x 24 news coverage – the destructive myth for Ministers

Yesterday I was talking to a former Labour Minister. He reminded me of the strength of the Blairite view that politics was changed fundamentally by the advent of “the 7 x 24 news cycle”. It was change in the media, they argued, that meant Ministers had to spend so much more time on media matters. It was the new news cycle which led to the demand for Ministers to spend so much more of our money and their time on spin, media handling, research and interviews.

I have always thought they overdid all this. The main purpose of a Minister is not to generate amusement and stories for the media, but the run departments, settle policies and spend public money wisely. Yeserday also led me to think that the premise that we now live in such different media times was not quite true either.

Prior to 1997, in the dark ages of Labiur mythology, we had Saturday and Sunday newspapers and TV and radio news bulletins. For decades prior to New Labour one set of newspapers went to print overnight and went through several edtions with changes to stories and even whole pages. We also had a series of afternoon and evening papers around the country going through several editions. Post 1945 TV news extended their hours of operation, giving us early morning and late evening news and comment. Radio had long since given regular bulletins spread over much more than the working day.

In recent years there have been two changes that affected the media substantailly. The one is the arrival in the UK of much more choice of programme, so there is more competition, and smaller audiences for each programme. The second is the advent of the internet, producing more news and comment from outside the professional world of the media. Neither of these developments need, however, fundamentally change the way a Minister does his or her job.

The truth is the last government thought they could manage the media better by spending much more time and money on that process. They discovered that whilst it worked for bit, whilst the public mood towards them was good anyway, when bad news or poor decisions came along their media handling skills bought them no refuge from barbed comment or revelations they wanted to avoid.

One of the popular views in news handling is that giving information out in a privileged way to selected outlets will bring better coverage. For every more favourable story it may produce, it builds up more resentments amongst the many news outlets who did not get the favour. There is a lot to be said for the news conference or the statement to Parliament as the main way for Ministers to set out their case or present their decisions. That way all media have equal opportunities, the costs of handling special information are reduced, and the Minister only has to perform once rather than saying more or less the same thing in interview after interview. The day job is running the country, not filling the papers.

There are plenty of footballers, cricketers, actors and actresses and C list celebrities to follow round to provide the endless diet of stories about follies and lifestyles to fill the papers on days when the government has nothing new to say.

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14 Comments

  1. Posted September 4, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Surely Ministers have a duty to make any important announcements to Parliament first, not the media. The Blair government ignored this rule and "leaked" news to friendly media contacts. The Coalition should return to the traditional practice of informing parliament first, and answering MP's questions, not those from the media. If necessary, a press conference could be held AFTER MPs have been given the news, not before.
    And if that make the media short of news, well perhaps they could provide us with a bit more foreign news and let us know what's going on elsewhere in the world. Even the quality papers now have very little foreign news unless there is a disaster – try finding out about the Australian election and you might find a tiny paragraph if you are lucky. There is plenty of news out there, it is not the duty of Ministers to provide it, as you say, they should get on with the job of running the country.

  2. Posted September 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    “The main purpose of a Minister is not to generate amusement and stories for the media, but to run departments, settle policies and spend public money wisely.”

    Your regular contributors including us you have often made the same point when commenting on different issues. The heart of the problem was Blair’s demand to continuously launch ‘eye-catching initiatives with the PM at the centre’. Every Sunday or Monday saw an announcement of some half-baked scheme, often of the ‘government crackdown’ type! Alas the Tories made little use of this gem of intercepted propaganda at the time or even since.

    Unfortunately the trait is being ‘aped’ by this government and we have recently commented here on the vast army of advisors in Numbers 10-12 Downing Street. Therefore much of the problem you outline is self-inflicted. We the voters would actually BELIEVE that the PM and his ministers ARE working should we not see them on the telly for a week or 2!

    By the way are you commenting on the need for the Kelly affair to be re-opened as there are relevant points to be made we think?

  3. Posted September 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I wish that what you write was totally true but your own public image, which is a false caricature, argues against you. Compare that with Alan Johnson, who to the best of my knowledge contributed little of special distinction to the Labour Party or to his Government apart from selling out to trade unions on public sector pensions. By assidous courting and management of the media, Mr Johnson became the Prime Minister in waiting if the last putsch against Mr Brown had worked, while avoiding any bad odour from its failure. But you are right to say that selective leaking of "exclusives" is a mug's game.

  4. Posted September 4, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    We long for just one dignified, accurate, and responsible news bulletin, say at 9pm. The compulsory digital switchover was a contrick, typical of the Brown administration. The reception is not as good as it was with analogue, and how satisfying is all the choice? A limited but carefully produced menu of quality is always more palatable than unlimited factory-produced quantity. However, there is a siver lining – we now have the Parliament programme, and therefore some chance of hearing politicians and civil servants unfiltered. Rather like the old Times where one could read 5 columns of close unillustrated print on just one thoughtful speech – and then make up one's own mind.

    The newspapers in their dying days are a waste of trees. Who uses the phrase "quality press" now? So blogs like this one are all the more welcome.

  5. Posted September 4, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    My recommendation is that ministers should make use of readily available BBC TV channels (such as BBC Parliament) to communicate directly with the citizen, cutting out broadcaster's editorial control, and there by allowing them to tell it like it is instead of having to spin the story to get it broadcast. Equal facilities would be available to the opposition.

    The media outlets would, of course, still have their role and chance to question and probe.

    I do not think it is healthy for democracy for our politicians to be only able to communicate with the citizen with the acquiescence of media editorial control. If the facility is abused such that no one wants to watch because the content is unwatchable, then more fool the politician for wasting the opportunity.

  6. Posted September 4, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    "The main purpose of a Minister is not to generate amusement and stories for the media

    Err, in that case do not behave in such a manner whereby the press can take issue with how you conduct yourself. This is common sense.

    Mr Redwood, for the reasons you give here this 24 hour news cover is not going to go away. Why are government ministers and advisers still giving the media ammunition?

    Are they stupid or do they think it is worth the risk and if they get caught do they think they can get away with it?

  7. Posted September 4, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I think you have got this the wrong way round. It is my opinion that most MPs have always been incompetent and sleazy. The advent of all the surveillance we now have has just brought it to light. I have always thought ministers should be appointed who had some competence and would therefore not need advisers. If this is not the case maybe we should have an exam system to weed out all the (problem people-ed) that many of our MPs seem to be.

  8. Posted September 4, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Well said, Mr Redwood!

  9. Posted September 5, 2010 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Much of this is also down to modern journalism though, –a ministerial interview with Jeremy Paxman or John Humphreys is seen (rightly or wrongly ) to be of great importance, and given FOI, generally greater disclosure of information, leaks, etc ,– some such interviews are highly forensic. Hence the need for greater preparation, research., etc. Have you yourself not stated on this blog that the Coalition should be more "savvy" about their communication of policies ? .

    • Posted September 10, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Point taken but ministers frequently do not even answer the questions posed – so what is the point of these interviews in the first place. when a minister will only answer the questions they want to hear – it is a waste of time broadcasting the message ! It is the answers they do not want to give – which are the ones which generate the most interesting news items !

      'Spin' doctors – or lie concoctors have NO PLACE in government ! Any Government who employs a single one is by definition – out to deceive the public and therefore not fit for a seat in parliament. Let alone government !

  10. Posted September 5, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Should we just what we see in the news and papers anyway!!!
    there just a money making machine.
    The papers only print the bad stories about the goverment and not the good stuff (WHY) because good dont sell newspapers

  11. Posted September 6, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Yeah. Labour rediscovered the old saw that 'you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time'. Surprised I am. Not. It was government by spin and, well, basically lies. And look at the mess? Dysfunctional State bureaucracy everywhere you look.

  12. Posted September 8, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    One of the very first lessons you learn as a teacher is completely to ignore what the class thinks of you. I imagined that Ministers, too, had learned this important lesson.

  13. Posted September 12, 2010 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    News comes out all the time. Stories have been edited 24 hours a day. 24×7 news has always been.

    What changed under Blair was that political PR was led by thugs who bullied and harassed journalists 24×7.

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  • By Blog selection (and a thank you) on September 8, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    […] John Redwood MP on Labour’s handling of the media (and how we shouldn’t) – John makes a very valid point about Labour’s obsession with the 24 hour news cycle. […]

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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