Note to politicians: Turning on the media just tells us there’s something more to be had

Two incidents in the last week have left me wondering why politicians think there is any mileage in attempting to deflect attention from an issue by attempting to turn attention on to the media instead.

The first involves David Cameron, a man who surely, given his background, should know how to best deal with a tricky situation. On Friday, he was rightly getting a grilling at the European Parliament for failing to deliver on his earlier promise to stop an increase in funding for the EU. Cameron was attempting to celebrate a smaller than requested increase – ‘just’ an extra £430million.

As it turns out, the reduced increase is exactly what the two main powerhouses in Europe – France and Germany – were pushing for in the first place, so this was always going to be a case of spin over substance. But clearly rattled by the questions from the British media, he made great play of the fact he had to take questions from three different BBC journalists.

“Good to see that costs are being controlled everywhere – let’s take the third question from the BBC.”

It was a cheap shot. If the BBC was producing material for just one outlet, then he’d have a point. But given the timing of the press conference – lunchtime – three reporters doesn’t seem unreasonable with tight deadlines for scheduled news bulletins on TV and radio, plus the BBC News Channel, and, of course, later programmes such as Newsnight.

But Cameron couldn’t leave it there. To quote the Daily Telegraph:

“At the same time, I will say, we’re all in it together, including, deliciously, the BBC, who in another negotiation agreed a licence fee freeze for six years. So what is good for the EU is good for the BBC.”

Mr Crick interrupted, saying: “We’re getting a freeze. We’d love 2.9 per cent.”

Mr Cameron replied: “Well, I’m afraid it’s going to be a freeze. I am sure there are some savings available.”

I’m sure there are too. But to gloat over the potential for job losses is a very sad trait to see in a prime minister, and one the NUJ have naturally jumped upon. That said, the NUJ must take some of the blame for the way BBC journalists are treated by the ruling Conservative Party – its lamentable decision to originally schedule strikes to clash with the Tory Party Conference only served to cement the opinion held by many Tories that the corporation has a left-wing bias.

But the main point here is that this was a conference about the EU funding settlement, and Cameron’s failure to deliver on a (always futile) promise. A more commendable approach would have been to admit he’d over-promised. Open and transparent, and all that. But in trying to deflect attention on to the reporter asking the question, because of the organisation he works for, Cameron will surely prompt others to dig that little bit harder to see what he’s trying to cover up.

At a more local level, in the last week, the leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese, used his leaders’ blog on the council website to go on the attack about a story in the Manchester Evening News which reported criticism of various new communications roles being advertised at the authority, including one which would have special responsibility for Facebook and Twitter.

In his blog post, Sir Richard says:

It’s not just about Twitter or Facebook although criticism of the Council seeking to make effective use of social media is a bit rich coming from a source that now covers our Council meetings by tweet, happily employing somebody to do so.

I’m not writing this post to defend the M.E.N – they don’t need me to do that, and have many people more expertly skilled than I in doing that. As I’ve said before, I write this blog in a personal capacity. I’m confident that I’d be writing this post if it was any council leader, in any part of the country, writing it.

The point Sir Richard seems to miss  is that the M.E.N is a private-sector business and therefore comparing the council with the M.E.N’s use of social media is utterly irrelevant. Furthermore, as I understand it, the M.E.N doesn’t send an extra reporter just to Tweet from council meetings, it’s the same reporter who files for the paper. And the M.E.N isn’t alone in doing that.

Then there is also the subtle difference of reporting something and carrying people’s opinion of the facts, and the media itself being critical of something.

To his credit, at least Sir Richard is engaging in a debate around the issue, which is more than Cameron did when he turned attention on the media, and indeed more than many councillors do when they fire off a cheap shot about a local newspaper in the council chamber.  Yet it’s a shame he chose to shape the debate the way he did. Exploring why the council needs a dedicated person to deal with social media when many authorities expect their existing staff to have social media skills might have prompted a more constructive debate.

In both cases, surely any communications officer worth their salt should have been able to advise their political boss that asking questions of the media only leads to the journalists digging deeper, especially at a time when public spending is under the microscope more than ever before.



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