Just had a couple of very nice days in Vienna. Beautiful city, really clean. Spotted one piece of litter in an early morning run round the first district, which is the government and business area.
I was there to speak to spokesmen and women and political advisors from all the main government departments and the political parties. A spin symposium, critics of political and government communications would doubtless call it. But governments and major institutions around the world are having to come to terms with a totally changed media landscape.
I did my usual stuff, set out how we tried to adapt to the changed landscape by being more strategic in our comms, sufficient to help win three general elections and – whatever the media like to say – stay in with a chance of winning a fourth despite all the problems and the baggage that a long period in power inevitably brings.
I was there on the day Number 10 announced a review of relations with the media.
Good luck! I think it is fair to say that every time we tried to improve channels of communication, and improve political debate, the general media response was ‘oh look, more spin.’
That went for putting briefings on the record, freedom of information legislation, the PM doing more extended interviews, or doing more daytime TV or ‘non-news media,’ and even when we instituted the monthly press conference. The problem with those, the Beeb’s Nick Robinson said, was that Blair got so good at them ‘they became boring.’
In other words, a PM communicating his own agenda on his own terms, and dealing with any question any journalist cares to ask … no thanks. Give us gaffes, splits, rows, sensation and anything on ‘our agenda’ instead.
Other leaders used to ask TB ‘what on earth do you put yourself through those monthly press conferences for?’ This in addition to PMQs and TB becoming the first PM in history to go before select committees.
So I say ‘good luck’ in that rather worldweary tone because my experience of the political media is that whatever is tried, they will say it is not enough, or they will find something in it to carp and criticise.
To be fair to Simon Lewis, the current PM’s spokesman, he is at least trying to take the ‘lobby’ with him and his review has more journalists on it than representatives of the government.
That might work. But it does rather increase my fears that what emerges will suit the narrow interests of the Westminster media, which should never be confused with the interests of the public.
Where Number 10 is absolutely right is to realise that 24 hour news, the internet, blogs, youtube, twitter, facebook and all the rest have changed the media faster in recent years than at any time since the advent of the printing press and the invention of the wireless and the TV.
But journalists on the review need to be honest enough to admit the paradox that we have more media space than ever, but less genuine debate and less public understanding of major issues. And they have to admit they are every bit as much part of the problem as any politician or any spin doctor.
When I said this in an interview with an Austrian journalist, he appeared taken aback. To be fair, the Austrian media is not quite the feral beast we know and don’t particularly love in Britain.
But the real spin doctors are owners and editors with an agenda, and the journalists who follow their line. The Sun has given us a very good example of spin in recent days.
One final point from Austria … I had breakfast with representatives of the Social Democrats and the Conservatives who make up the Grand Coalition which currently forms the government.
Listening to them describe every day attempts to govern and to communicate has further strengthened my view that Proportional Representation would be a a disaster. One of those things that sounds great – ‘everyone will feel their vote matters’ – but risks ending up satisfying nobody.