01 April 2016

Every minister handles the media in a different way. Each has their own set of views on which journalists are important, which papers matter, and which interviews need to be cleared (or not) by Number 10. Nicole Valentinuzzi looks at what the Ministers Reflect archive tells us about their relationship with the great British press.

Some ministers relish interviews (Ken Clarke) and others fear them (too many to name), but they all understand the media is their best direct line to the breakfast tables - and mobile devices - of the nation.

When responding to a crisis, the media is the first port of call. As Hugh Robertson explained: ‘What most often happens is when one of these crises occurs, the problem is not solving the crisis but explaining the crisis to the outside world.’

Ken Clarke said that ministers now ‘are all advised now to vanish, as soon as there is any row, and put some obscure junior minister in… If someone says anything outrageous on the lunchtime radio, I wish to be on the PM programme replying to it.’

Praising Home Secretary Theresa May’s approach to media, Damian Green said she was categorically ‘not driven by the media agenda’ which was ‘not a universal truth amongst senior politicians’.

But it’s not all about spin and damage control. As a former press officer myself, I worked with many ministers who genuinely saw the value in using the media as a vehicle to communicate their policies to the public.

Andrew Mitchell, while Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, said he was ‘always very keen to do media work’ because he recognised he could use it to ‘justify the fact that this department had a ring-fenced budget’. (He didn’t divulge if this view changed after ‘plebgate’...).

Steve Webb, responsible for selling some of the biggest changes to pensions in decades, said the media was very important ‘to lay the ground for reform… I had to do the rounds of media, newspapers, conferences, sowing the seeds, making it apparent.’

Launching huge reforms without properly engaging with the media will only make a minister’s job harder. Much has been made of what went wrong with Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act of 2012, but the Minister of State for Health at the time, Paul Burstow, believed the problem was that the Secretary of State ‘was technically absolutely across every detail of what he wanted to do with the legislation…but was not a good communicator of it externally’.

Savvy ministers used the press to make their case not just to the public, but also within government. Jo Swinson said that positive press coverage of her shared parental leave policy helped her ‘make a case for it within government because it makes it harder, it increases the cost, if you like, of opposing it.’

Others point out how important the media is for career progression and getting noticed. George Young defined an effective minister as someone who was ‘good on the media – can look after themselves on Today, Newsnight, all that.’

As Mark Prisk said, ‘If people don’t see you then they don’t know what you’re doing. And so unless you’re out there banging the drum remorselessly, tirelessly, tediously, I think people will tend to move on.’

So they all had their reasons for engaging with the press. But they did it differently.

For some, the media was not their priority (David Willetts). Others (Oliver Heald) acknowledged that not engaging better with the press was a ‘weakness’. And others still (David Laws) tried to avoid doing media altogether, ‘although it did sort of mean that there was more burden on people like Nick [Clegg].’

The most surprising thing I found was how little the media actually came up, given the classic portrayal of politicians as fame-hungry and ego-driven. Perhaps it’s more of a group-think obsession? Individual ministers might not be preoccupied with latest headlines, but the Government as a whole seems to obsess over media management.

Lord Howell, a minister in the 1980s who returned to office in 2010, was surprised to find the second time round that ‘the first people into the Secretary of State are the PR people and the press officers to work out where the hell we’re going, what are they saying, what are the media saying. Then later on in the morning the ministers are brought in.’

Some ministers thought their comms departments were ‘flat-footed’ (Paul Burstow), ‘over-staffed’ (Steve Webb), or not ‘politically clever’ (Simon Hughes). I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them. Although my own experience is that even ministers who distrusted their press team in the first year would always come to rely on them heavily in the end. They would still be the first ones in the room, as Lord Howell noted.

While feelings on their Civil Service press offices were mixed, there was general agreement that media special advisers (spads) were greatly appreciated. In an average day, Vince Cable would have ‘three or four conversations with my special adviser about radio, television, and what we were trying to say.’ Mark Hoban thought his department’s media spads were invaluable for ‘thinking through the politics and working through what the right messages would be and the language we might want to use.’

That feeling did not extend past their own media spads, however, and there was a general feeling of unease around the ‘Downing Street spin-doctors wanting to micro-manage what was said about anything’ (Nick Harvey) and control from the centre in general.

In our interviews so far, Ken Clarke has spoken the most freely about his frustrations with the media management in Number 10: the grid, permission to interview, lines to take... But as a big beast of government, he simply ‘didn’t bother with the grid and asking permission and all this rubbish’.

For the press officers in his department at the time, that approach did not make life easy – they were left having to explain why their Secretary of State had suddenly popped up on World at One. As Michael Moore astutely points out, every press officer would ‘dread the phone call from the Number 10 Press Office.’

There was also some competition for the media spotlight between ministers and Number 10. When managed from the centre, bids are accepted and dished out on the basis of seniority. As Baroness Kramer said: ‘Anywhere where the TV cameras would be basically, only the Prime Minister could turn up.’

But like it or lump it, the British public has an unrelenting appetite for political coverage and if ministers want to keep their boss at Number 10 happy they need to avoid negative stories. Which is why, as Caroline Spelman put it, ‘If you can get good media headlines that is definitely one of the currencies that would be attributed to a good minister.’

Further information

Explore the Ministers Reflect archive in full