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.