Theresa May has been quick to rule out taking part in a televised leaders’ debate as part of the General Election campaign.
It is the same old problem facing spin doctors in Downing Street.
On the one hand television delivers mass audiences and impact with voters.
On the other, your opponents may benefit more than you.
In most campaigns back as far as the early 1960s, Downing Street has successfully killed them off – sometimes with help from other party leaders.
The exception was in 2010 when Labour PM Gordon Brown felt he had little to lose and perhaps something to gain.
Following pressure from the broadcasters, and particularly Sky News, three leaders’ debates were aired.
The result was branded by the newspapers “Cleggmania” as everyone agreed with Nick.
But despite raised hopes of a breakthrough, on election night the Liberal Democrats actually lost five seats.
By 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron was a lot less enthusiastic about the debates than he’d been as Leader of the Opposition.
After initially refusing to take part he finally agreed to a single leaders’ debate broadcast on ITV, as well as to being interviewed in series with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and a challengers’ debate, which took place without him.
There’s some evidence the TV debates did help him successfully increase his majority.
Watched by more than seven million people, a survey conducted just after the election by Panelbase found that 38% of sampled voters were influenced by the debates.
Now Theresa May’s opponents are accusing her of being frit, ITV is saying it will “empty chair” her by going ahead without her participation, and the Daily Mirror is digging out its chicken suit once again.
So when Theresa May says no, listen for the but…
The broadcasters are trying to find a format Downing Street will agree with and, one way or another, the election debates will take place and Theresa May will have a role in them.
His memoir of the inside story of the Brexit referendum seems to have been universally panned by the press. James Kirkup’s evisceration in The Telegraph is particularly brutal.
It is true that it is not that well-written. The number of times that Craig “runs into” a world famous politician and then is reminded of a pop-culture reference suggest it needed more careful editing.
It has clearly been rushed out and is little more than a diary rather than a considered view of the campaign and its implications.
But that was also true of Alastair Campbell’s diaries too. So, why the universal derision?
I better declare an interest. I’ve known Craig for many years. He was a highly intelligent and capable programme editor at ITN and one of the driving forces behind ITV News during his tenure as Head of Output. He was a smart, driven but thoughtful journalist with a populist touch.
We stayed in contact after he moved to the BBC and I briefly worked for David Cameron in opposition – although I’ve not seen him since his elevation to Number 10.
But he’s not exactly clubbable.
When he started working for Cameron I heard back from friends in the Lobby and on comment pages of newspapers that they found him supercilious, unconcerned with the needs of the print press and purely focussed on broadcast news.
That was clearly the right thing to do in my opinion. Getting the message right on Radio 1, Radio 2 and the main broadcast bulletins watched by millions of voters is far more important than appeasing the Sunday Telegraph’s comment writers.
But it is clear the Lobby has never forgiven him and is getting its revenge now.
That said, this is an insight into the heart of the campaign and its failings. And it is surprisingly refreshing to see politicians actually being quoted in what would normally be off-the record moments.
And that might be something the Lobby, with its reliance on anonymous sources, might want to reflect on.
Of course it is but perhaps not in the way you think.
There have been several surveys released in recent weeks that appear to show systematic bias against the leader of the Labour Party. One by the Media Reform Coalition accused the BBC of giving more airtime to his critics, another by YouGov found most people felt the media was biased against Corbyn.
Even traditionally left wing publications, such as The Mirror and The Guardian, which tried at first to give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt have struggled to support him.
Sure, there are some journalists and publications who will never support Corbyn – The Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph and so on. But some who might be persuaded to buy into the Corbynite agenda will be unpersuaded by incompetence. And by failing to cultivate support in the press, Corbyn’s team continue to fuel a narrative of “us vs them”.
The fact is that Corbyn needs to find a way to connect with the general public and that – still, at the moment – means fighting to ensure a fair hearing in at least some parts of the press and broadcast media. Public meetings and social media posts have their place but they can’t replace mediated communication – at last not yet.
That means that Corbyn’s team need to swallow hard and find ways to start placing positive stories – it might be too early to reveal the hard policies they’ll stand behind at the next election but they need to fly some kites to reframe the media narrative.
So, it matters for Corbyn. But does all this matter for the media?
Yes, I think it does. The sense from Corbyn’s supporters that the media is against them is probably to be expected, but the wider feeling of the general public of bias against Corbyn should give at least some journalists pause for thought.
The fact is that something is happening in the UK. Corbyn is tapping into a groundswell of opinion and not enough is being done by the media to explain that movement and understand what it means. The Westminster village often talks about wanting to get out of the bubble and find out what’s happening – here’s its chance.
But yesterday the programme’s output editor wrote a blog explaining how it came about – and specifically that the programme asked Political Editor, Laura Kuessenberg, whether Doughty could be persuaded to resign on-air.
It appears that the programme team hadn’t quite realised how incendiary this would be. But someone else did and the blog was quietly taken down.
That was picked up the blogger Alex Little, who began to ask questions about the BBC’s role in the affair.
For the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn this was clear evidence of a BBC agenda of bias against the Labour leader. They took to Twitter en masse to fulminate about the coverage. Some even going so far as to suggest that the entire resignation was a stunt got up by the BBC.
That was too much even for the BBC’s press office.
Although there was some questioning about the BBC’s taking down of the blog. This from the LSE’s Charlie Beckett, who is also an advisor to the House of Commons’ Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.
All TV news is orchestrated. I have no problem with BBC Doughty live resignation. But why take down the blogpost? https://t.co/Nd4kKXP3J9
Did the BBC organise the resignation of Stephen Doughty?
No. It’s clear he had already decided to resign and written to Corbyn.
Was it right for the BBC to allow Stephen Doughty to resign on air?
This is an editorial decision. The programme makers want a scroop and they got it. Referring back to my battered copy of the BBC Editorial guidelines, the only issue I can see raised by this is the question of whether carrying the resignation is a breach of due impartiality. I can’t see that it is. Not least because of the rigour of Andrew Neil’s subsequent questioning of his motives in resignation. Consider this: would it have been OK for the BBC to carry an interview with a public figure in any other sphere in which they announced their resignation? Clearly the answer to this is yes. So, why wouldn’t they carry Doughty’s resignation interview?
Did the BBC stage manage the resignation for maximum impact?
Pretty clearly the answer to this is yes. But all news coverage is managed by journalists for the maximum impact. If you’re the editor of News at Ten, you want your lead story to be a scoop that wrong foots the opposition. That’s what journalism is. Could the story been reported in other ways? Clearly it could – Laura Kuessenberg could reported it on the News Channel or Radio 4’s Today or any of the other myriad of BBC outlets. Would that have made any difference to the impact? I don’t think so and I think that comments about the timing are broadly disingenuous – Doughty had decided to resign on that morning, whether it was at 9am or 11.50am the effect would have been the same.
Is the BBC acting in a politicised way?
I don’t think so. I don’t see that any other news organisation would have run this differently. But the issue for the BBC here is not that it IS acting politically but that it might be SEEN to be acting politically. That, I suspect, is the reason for the caution over the blog. As the BBC enters licence renewal it will want Labour onside and thus crowing articles about taking scalps are the last thing it wants to talk about in public.
Does the BBC have to be held to higher standards than other media organisations?
All this all very well then. But doesn’t the BBC have to be held to higher standards than other news organisations because of the unique nature of the way it’s funded? That’s certainly been the argument of the author and media commentator Peter Jukes.
If the BBC starts behaving like any other news organisation, the question will quickly follow. Why should we be forced to pay for it?
Does the BBC act like any other news organisation? I don’t think so. It holds itself to high editorial standards, it pays at least lip service to transparency, and it agonises over its coverage. Was it right to carry Doughty’s resignation announcement as it did – broadly I think so. The programme was a specialist programme for a specialist audience, there was a public interest in questioning his motives in resignation, and it was clearly newsworthy. But as so often with these cases, that’s a matter of opinion and judgement.
Which brings us all back to the age old question: can you trust the media? Trust them to always be impartial and to act from the purest and noblest of motives? To paraphrase my old colleague, Adrian Monck, who once wrote a book on this…. no.
Not much doubt about this one. You could hardly move for podcasts this year.
Whether it’s the return of Serial ; those that have taken inspiration from its format, such as this one by the media commentator Peter Jukes; to those that support brands and content marketing; to the long wait for a new edition of the on hiatus Bugle; media organisations rediscovered their love of podcasting.
The number of listeners seems to be up too – although perhaps not quite as dramatically as Serial’s astonishing figures would have you believe.
Are they making money? Almost certainly not.
Podcasts that involve reporting are expensive to make. Anything involving studios is expensive too.
But where there’s audience, advertising will follow.
And the old stager The Game, which I set up at The Times back in 2006, is still drawing audience and cross-sold advertising.
2. The TVisation of the web
Have TV companies taken on digital and made it their own in 2015?
For the most part, the answer is no.
TV companies still continue to treat digital as an upstart child that will eventually accept discipline.
And digital native products continue to eat TV’s lunch.
Take the BBC’s strategy of allowing Netflix to licence its back catalogue. Nuts! Netflix has built a business on its content and now looks like a serious competitor.
That’s short term gain for long term pain.
But there are glimmers of interesting experimentation – the millennial targeting AJ+ service has found an audience with sassy video takes on news stories.
And, of course, there is the fact that digital native publishers such as Buzzfeed and Vice want to be TV broadcasters too.
Perhaps they can find a lean-back experience to match the legacy TV organisations in 2016 and inject some much needed life into the sector.
3. Towards a sustainable future for papers
Scale has been the buzzword for newspaper publishers in 2015.