Did David Cameron’s press office really ‘dupe’ the regional press?

This weekend, the Yorkshire Post did what all regional newspapers strive to do on big issues: Make a noise in the corridors of power in Westminster.

It did so by making public its refusal to publish what it described as a ‘love letter’ to the people of Yorkshire from prime minister David Cameron about how amazing the tourism opportunities were in the county. Its reason was simple: Cameron has failed to answer key questions about the flooding which blighted Yorkshire (and many other parts of the North) over Christmas.

As is so often the case with Westminster politicians, many were quick to be seen on the ground in the days after the flooding, bringing their London bubble with them, but it’s the role of the regional press to keep asking the awkward questions long after the national news machine has moved its focus elsewhere.

The YP explained its decision in an editorial on Saturday, which is a great example of lifting the curtain on what we do by explaining why we’ve taken the decisions we have. It was promoted like this on Facebook:

yp spiked

The headline in the URL said :”tom-richmond-david-cameron-and-his-empty-words-of-love-for-flood-hit-yorkshire”. Later in the day, however, a revised version appeared:

yp pr duped

The URL headline also changed to “How-david-cameron-s-pr-team-duped-newspapers-across-the-country-with-generic-love-letters.” Maybe someone, somewhere, felt it read better that way, although the article appears the same, and the latter certainly doesn’t include the word ‘duped’ in the body text.

A case of the headline over-spinning the story? Maybe – and a little unfortunate on an article which is effectively berating the government for launching a spin operation which ‘duped’ the regional press.

But did Cameron’s press office really dupe the regional press? If there is one thing the regional press isn’t short of, it’s cynicism towards those in power. The YP cited similar ‘love letters’ to the one it was offered appearing in the Newcastle Chronicle (actually The Journal, which shares an online presence with the Chronicle via ChronicleLive), the Plymouth Herald (actually the Western Morning News, which shares an online presence with the Plymouth Herald), the Lincolnshire Echo and the Eastern Daily Press.

The first three mentioned are ones I work with, so I was curious to see if anyone had been duped.

There’s no getting away from the fact these were hardly personal love letters from the PM. They were standard, regionalised columns which have been a bread-and-butter PR tactic for a long time.

But when you read the actual copy, is it so remarkable for the prime minister to profess a love for different parts of the UK? And the copy does include details of government investments in tourism in different parts of the UK which, according to the ‘letter’, are designed to get people visiting more than just London when they visit?

The YP’s decision is understandable, but were other titles duped? The Journal doesn’t appear to have been, blurbing the PM’s comments on the front page, and leading the article on the key commitment – to get more people to the visit areas outside London:

hadrians wall.jpg

And:

northumberland tourism

I briefly worked on The Journal in the early 2000s, and it was drummed into me there that it was important to report what people in power were promising, because there was no better way to hold someone to account than by referencing back to their previous words. That spirit lives on here.

And indeed, it’s alive and well in the South West, where the Western Morning News presented Cameron’s comments for what they were – a first-person piece (about a region he already holidays in):

wmn

In Lincolnshire, the Echo billed the letter as a first-person piece:

linc eschp.jpg

Meanwhile, at the Eastern Daily Press, there can be no suggesting the presentation of the the Cameron letter/column/first-person piece was the result of being duped:

eastern daily press

The perils of trying to regionalise a PR campaign, I guess. And that’s what this was – an PR campaign which aimed to getting a message across. We’ve all taken the ‘we’ve done a survey about the favourite foods of dogs in the Nottingham/Newark/Newcastle area’ and laughed them off.

But ultimately it all boils down to judgement. None of the examples listed by the YP as examples of how the Cameron content was used suggest anyone was duped. No-one shouted ‘The PM loves our area most.’ No-one billed it as a searing insight or exclusive.

But they were words from the PM (or rather on behalf of the PM) which in many cases were worth recording. Understandably, if you cover a region which was battered in the floods and feels neglected by Government ever since, such platitudes sit uncomfortably.

Whether the YP’s stance changes the Government’s attitude to Yorkshire remains to be seen. The fact Number 10 has dismissed the YP’s stance as ‘them being entitled to their own opinions’ (exactly what the YP editor told me on Twitter when I questioned the validity of the duping point) suggests the YP is in for a long fight, and good luck to it. Someone needs to keep banging the drum towards a government which I know is prone to dismissing complaints from the North as ‘northern whinging.’

It may well be that such tweaked letters/columns become a thing of the past in the internet age, but is the idea that politicians try to localise their message such a bad thing? It depends on the motive, I guess.

So bravo the YP for calling out the double standards of the Conservative government in its attitude towards Yorkshire. But I really don’t see how the rest of the regional press was duped, because the evidence simply isn’t there.

It’s not as if we’re short of critics of the regional press…

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