Thank you for inviting me back to the City of my birth to speak to you this evening on The Tories and the Media. With the background noise of the Hutton Report still ringing in our ears it is perhaps a good time to reflect on our relationship with the media, a relationship which has always been somewhat fraught and tetchy.
I shall submit to you tonight that unless we learn from both our past and the experience of New Labour’s ways of handling the media we will be damaging our chances of winning the next election.
Tonight I’ll be talking about dumbing down, media bias, changes in the media, the soundbiteocracy and how we should deal with the media over the next 18 months, both locally and nationally.
The good news is that the media have given Michael Howard a remarkably free ride since he became leader. It’s no secret that I wanted David Davis to replace IDS as I felt he had the skills needed, in the media age, to be an effective leader.
I couldn’t see how, if IDS was difficult to sell on the doorstep, Michael Howard would be any easier. I was wrong. Happy to admit it.
In three short months I wouldn’t say Howard has them eating out his hands but they take him seriously. They view him as a real potential Prime Minister.
Our biggest breakthrough is that they don’t laugh at us anymore. When you say the words “the next Conservative Government” people don’t any longer smile knowingly or give you that look which says “You can’t be serious”. And it’s not only the media.
Normal people, average voters who haven’t thought about voting Conservative for ten years are now at least beginning to think about it.
The Party has recruited 10,000 new members in recent months – that says something. So we are on the threshold of a real breakthrough, and for candidates in marginal seats like me, that is just where I want to be.
Let’s start off by looking at the modern day media and analyse if our Party - or indeed any Party – has come to terms with the demands of the 24 hour news cycle and the dumbed down programmes and articles that make up our TV and radio and print media.
We live an age of Tabloid TV, where Richard & Judy rule the roost, where Fern & Phil set the agenda, where Trish and Kilroy – well, perhaps not Kilroy – are the nation’s conscience. And what do we do? Snear when Tony Blair adorns their respective sofas.
We grimace when he presents a phone-in on the radio, we look down our noses when he goes on GMTV rather than the Today Programme. We’re mad. We should be learning from him.
Twice as many people watch GMTV as listen to Today – and GMTV listeners are Mr & Mrs Average Briton, not political groupies or Guardian readers. They’re the very people we need to get to if we are to win.
We now have 24 hour rolling news and all the different demands that brings.
But we regard it as a threat not an opportunity.
The likes of Sky News, News 24 and the ITV News Channel are desperate for material to fill the unending hours of their broadcasts.
Yet have we grasped how to use them properly? I think not. Instead of Conservative spokesmen, MPs and Party officials appearing we are seeing the rise of a punditocracy.
Instead of politicians being interviewed we are beginning to echo the United States where journalists interview each other about the great issues of the day, cutting out politicians altogether.
The likes of Matthew Parris, Lance Price, Amanda Plattell, Michael Brown and dare I say me, have far more influence on things than any backbench MP.
Why is it that the broadcasters come to us for interviews to comment on the great issues of the day rather than MPs?
It’s because they are confident that we will say something of interest and something that’s different, unlike the backbench MP who, unless he is Mr Rentaquote, will inevitably toe the party line and as a consequence be seen as rather boring.
During the Hutton Inquiry in the summer, hour after hour, day after day, week after week I was interviewed on Sky and News 24 for my views on what was going on.
Even I had to question why this was. On one day on Sky I had half an hour to myself as their only guest and was on twice later in the day giving my comments.
The fact of the matter was that they thought I would be a more interesting commentator than a politician.
Now that might flatter my ego but it is a damning indictment on our politicians that Sky think I am more interesting that someone on the Intelligence Select Committee, who could inevitably give a more knowledgeable interview than I could ever hope to.
But that’s not what they want.
They want someone who is capable of speaking in soundbites, who knows how to encapsulate a controversial stance in two sentences. I shall return to this subject in a moment.
There is now very little serious coverage of Parliament. Radio 4 still broadcast Yesterday in Parliament, but they do it rather grudgingly.
Who on earth listens to Long Wave anyway. The Telegraph, under its new editor, has ditched its Parliament page and shifted its Parliamentary correspondent to the diary.
The Parliament Channel on Sky does a good job, but it has yet to emulate the excellent C-SPAN in the USA. This has happened because Parliament has been its own worst enemy.
It’s not that it hasn’t reformed its procedures, it is that it has done it in entirely the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Some trace this back to the advent of the televising of the Commons and say that it has never been the same since.
Some say it is because the Yah-boo element of House of Commons debate puts people off following its proceedings. Some say it is because it is a macho environment in which women can’t shine.
All three views are entirely misplaced. Parliament has become somewhat of an irrelevance to the media because they think that if politicians treat it with contempt why shouldn’t we?
They see a Prime Minister who votes in only 5% of divisions. They see a Government who has emasculated the timetable of the House to be ‘family friendly’ and they couldn’t even get that right.
They see a Speaker who has allowed Tony Blair to turn Prime Minister’s Questions into Leader of the Opposition’s Questions – where whatever Blair is asked he turns it round to ask the Leader of the Opposition a question.
We have a Parliament which has done nothing to stop the gradual shift of its powers and competence to an unelected bureaucracy in Brussells, so they think, well if politicians don’t take Parliament seriously why on earth should we?
This attitude can be reversed but it wil be up to a new generation of politicians to carry it through. On my CV when I applied for seats I put this as my first priority as a Parliamentarian – to increase the relevance and supremacy of Parliament. And I meant it.
The other thing we have to contend with is that the broadsheet newspapers have gone from being newspapers to comment papers. Just look at The Independent nowadays. It isn’t a newspaper it’s a giant editorial.
Even Her Majesty’s Daily Telegraph is going in that direction. I don’t know about you but I buy newspapers to read the news, not what a journalist I have never heard of thinks of the news. I don’t want an interpretation in the news pages, that can stay in the Comment pages.
At the Conservative Conference I tackled Robert Thomson, the editor of The Times on this subject and told him his newspaper’s political coverage was a disgrace. His political staff had one objective – and that was to bring down the elected leader of the Conservative Party.
I should have said we can do that without any help from you thank you very much – but restrained myself. But the fact of the matter is that the Times employs at least four journalists whose sole aim in life is to promote the so-called Portillo modernising agenda.
Many of them are actually friends of mine, but I have to say it is not healthy for a national newspaper to be so biased towards one wing of a political party. On top of that they employ a political journalist who is, or was, seen as Alastair Campbell’s mouthpiece and whose sole objective in life is to promote a New Labour agenda.
Now, I’m glad to say things have moved on and The Times, along with other broadsheets is giving us a real chance.
I just hope it isn’t a honeymoon period. But this goodwill may be undermined if we, as a party lose our internal discipline again.
I have to say I am delighted to learn that Michael Howard is taking an extremely tough line against any MP who briefs again the Party or individual MPs. It’s that which has been our undoing in the past.
I want to move on to talk about media bias. Traditionally, as Party, we have always felt persecuted. It’s a bit like Kenneth Williams in one of the Carry On films shouting “Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”. We’re not paranoid, but we still think they’re out to get us.
I have to say I think it is a copout to believe that the media as a whole are institutionally biased against us. It’s more of a case that because the media by its very nature attracts people of a more of a left of centre disposition the whole of the media appears anti-Tory.
I know many journalists who are left of centre by inclination but are rigorously fair in their coverage. But the examples of those who are not tend to dominate our thoughts.
I was at a Conservative Conference a few years ago and watched a camera crew from Channel 4 News interview about 10 people on what they had thought of a particular issue.
Every single person they interviewed was either over 70 or odd in some way. The reporter was actually a good friend of mine and I tackled him about it.
I complained bitterly that he had only interviewed oddballs and old people when he could see perfectly well that they were not representative of the conference. I asked him why he had done it? He laughed and said “because I can”. A total disgrace.
We have to be wary of many in the media who want us to confirm to their stereotypes of Tory Boy, Blue rinse, sleazy MP on the make or whatever. We mustn’t let them pigeon hole us, because 99% of us are totally normal people, people who live a normal life, it’s just that we have this political virus which won’t go away.
Our aim now must be to create a Party which does reflect the society live in. We’ve done so well in selecting a much more diverse range of candidates, but you could be forgiven if it had passed you by. Out of 100 candidates selected in safe and key marginal seats 25 are women, 6 are from ethnic minorities and at least 3 are openly gay.
In an ideal world it shouldn’t matter, but it does.
It is a real news story when a black candidate is selected in Windsor or an Asian candidate is selected in North West Cambridgeshire, or dare I say it a gay candidate is selected in North Norfolk.
It’s a sign that the Conservative Party is alive to the fact that they should select the best person for the job rather than the person they would most like to have dinner with.
So what we do to counteract bias and encourage the media to report positive stories about us. Well the first thing is to point out and complain about examples of bias wherever we see them, not in a threatening way but more in sorrow than in anger.
The anger can come later if necessary. Bullying editors may give you some short term satisfaction but in the end you regret it, as Alastair Campbell or Peter Mandelson may testify. But in the end we need to present ourselves professionally and positively.
We need to use people who are media friendly. If the media don’t want to hear from boring backbench MPs or political has-beens fine, let’s find people who they will find interesting, people like some of the new candidates.
They’re fresh, some are even good looking but they all have ideas, and that’s what will appeal to the modern day media. They need to have the gist of the soundbite, because we now live in an era where the media would have us believe that the electorate have the attention span of a flea.
Poor dears, they can only cope with thirty seconds of an interview because they lose interest. What rubbish. Just listen to the The Today Programme or a Radio 5 Live programme and count how many times the presenters says to an interviewee “I’m sorry that’s all we’ve got time for”.
Why is it all we’ve got time for?
If an interview is interesting why curtail it after 2 minutes automatically? Robin Cook told me an anecdote recently which illustrates what an absurd world we live in.
He was rung up by GMTV and the reporter asked if he would do a quick piece to camera for their programme the next day but could he condense what he wanted to say in 12 seconds.
Being an accomplished performer he did just that and was rather proud of himself for having done so. He tuned in next morning to watch the piece – as you do! – and was appalled to hear the very same reporter finishing off the report by saying “And that Was Robin Cook, indulging in typical soundbite politics”. Sometimes you just can’t win.
Interestingly the long half hour o three quarters of an hour interview has all but disappeared. I sometimes long for a Brian Walden type interview from the late lamented Weekend World, or John Humphreys grilling someone for half an hour on On the Record.
Even Panorama no longer carries set piece interviews. Not even with the Prime Minister. We’re left with the ridiculous spectacle of that cool tieless dude Jeremy Vine indulging in the very worst of the dumbed down interview on that dreadful excuse for a serious political programme, The Politics Show.
However, I believe that the advent of digital TV and radio may reverse that trend. I present a weekly half hour programme on Oneword Digital Radio called Planet Politics.
I have either one guest or three and we discuss a particular issue for the whole programme. It’s Oneword’s highest rated programme - which isn’t saying much I guess, especially as it may go off the air soon, but it’s interesting that twice in the last year my programme has hit the headlines.
First of all when I asked Peter Mandelson if he expected to get back into government and he modestly replied “I was born to be in Government. It’s what I was put on this earth to do”, and second of all just before Christmas when I interviewed Robin Cook about his new book and he likened Blair invading Iraq to Hitler invading the Sudetenland.
The fact of the matter is neither of these comments would have been made in a short interview where the interviewee knows exactly what he is going to say. Politicians have got out of the habit of doing long interviews so they let their guard down a little more.
BBC News 24 is doing some similar programmes like Hard Talk and Newsmakers and Sky has recently added the Littlejohn show to its lineup. I hope the mainstream broadcasters may yet follow suit, especially the ITV regions, whose coverage of local politics has been lamentable for many years now.
Thank Goodness we are emerging from a period when the media decided that if the Conservatives weren’t capable of providing any opposition, they would.
Who on earth elected them to decide that? Unlike elected political representatives the media has great power, massive influence but absolutely no responsibility for its actions. About the only positive thing flowing from the Hutton report was that it might just chasten certain parts of the media a little.
It says a lot about modern day politics that people feel they can have more influence in the media than enter mainstream politics. I always used that as an excuse. I used to trot out a well practised line of being able to have more influence as a political pundit than I could as a backbencher. It’s rubbish of course.
I knew it at the time and I know it more so now.
Real power, the power to change things, the power to improve people’s lives still lies with politicians – by a thread. So I keep saying to the likes of Michael Give, Steven Pollard, Tim Hames, George Monbiot and the like – get involved, stand for election, help change things.
To conclude, I believe we stand at a watershed moment which may define British politics for years to come. If the Conservative Party under Michael Howard fails to take forward the optimism of the first three months of his leadership we shall not only fail ourselves but also the British people.
We mustn’t make the mistake of aping the New Labour media operation but we must appoint the best people for the job. We’ve started doing that and I welcome Guy Black’s appointment. We need to bring back a few greybeards – people who have been there, done that, who know about winning elections.
We need to use all sorts of media outlets we have never thought of in the past. Bizarrely Ann Widdecombe and Michael Portillo are about the only two politicians who have recognised this. Ann says many of her colleagues look down their noses at her for some of the so-called trash media she does, like Celebrity Fit Club.
The result of her doing that is that people who may have ignored her appearances on TV in the past may now sit up and listen to her when she talks about politics rather than losing pounds. And she’s right. If all the parliamentary party understood how to use the media like Widdecombe and Portillo we would be far better off.
We all need to think of targeted campaigns. I would start one titled Come Home to the Conservatives. We need to attract back those 4 million Conservative voters in who deserted our Party for whatever reason, in 1997 and 2001.
We must make them understand that we are relevant to their lives and their local communities. We must welcome them home with open arms. These are people who have lost trust in us. We must work hard to regain it and then we can win. And we have started.
I believe above all need to develop national policies which show a clear difference to Labour. We only need five or six, but voters must understand what they are. They must be presented in simple language and repeated at every opportunity.
I want a zero tolerance approach to violent crime and the scourge of hard drugs.
I want to see us preach the virtues of low taxes.
I want a transport policy which recognises that car users
I want a parliament that is not a lapdog of the government.
I want to see politics cleansed of the parasites who have infected Downing Street in recent years.
I want to see a Britain which has the self respect and pride to say, yes, we’re the fourth largest economy in the world and under no circumstances will be give up our currency, our sovereignty and our history to become some fourth rate province in the Greater Belgian Empire.
We live in a country where...
The trains run more slowly than they did 100 years ago...
Where the more taxpayers money is spent on the health service the longer waiting lists get
Where it's almost impossible to fail an exam, yet kids leave school without basic literacy skills...
Where the national lottery believes it is Ok to give £750,000 to fund court cases against the Government by illegal asylum seekers...
Where the Labour majority on the Welsh Assembly would rather spend £40 million on a white elephant than build a new national children’s hospital
And we live in a country where we have a government which believes the more lies it tells to the British people, the more likely they are to be re-elected.
It is for those reasons that we need a strong Opposition which is ready to govern this country at a moment’s notice.
We owe it to Britain to get our act together. Let’s forget talk of being a nice party or nasty party. We’re the Conservative Party and the Conservative Party is used to winning elections.
Our task is to
- Remind people what we are for rather than always what we are against
- Stop apologising for Thatcher/Major
- Remind people of achievements. We did great things for our country. We must remind the voters.
- William Hague said concede and move on. We have done enough conceding. It’s now time to go for victory.
The desire to win is born in most of us. The will to win is a matter of training. The manner of winning is a matter of honour.
We shouldn’t indulge in spin. We should tell it like it is. We won’t indulge in character assassination of our opponents, We will judge them on what they do. We want to win in a manner which befits our proud party. I want to do it the right way.
And if we do it that right we will not only gain the respect of the media but also the electorate. And respect is what counts. Respect leads to belief. Belief leads to commitment. Commitment leads to enthusiasm and that is our aim. To make people feel enthusiastic about voting Conservative.