Tony Blair’s government struggled to control a “juvenile” media as cabinet ministers failed to “do message”, often “kiboshing” each other’s announcements, previously secret documents reveal.
A despairing Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, told him the basic lack of professionalism of ministers in dealing with media interviews was “beyond a joke”.
At one point, senior aides asked if newspapers could be controlled by some form of “accuracy” regulations but the idea was dismissed as “probably suicidal to try”.
Notes for Blair’s presentation in September 1998 to a cabinet away day at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house, stated: “We have a serious problem with juvenile media. The smallest decision can become big headlines. They refuse to report the substance of what you do.”
Campbell advised Blair privately that he must tackle the problem of senior ministers not informing No 10 of their media interviews and briefings. Blair should tell the cabinet that “in relation to all major media bids, we want them cleared and coordinated,” he wrote.
Of ministers, he wrote: “Above all, they do not do message.” He added: “There is a basic lack of professionalism problem re message discipline which is beyond a joke.”
Conservative messages against Labour “are beginning to take hold”, Campbell wrote to Blair in October 2000. Referring to the Tory leader William Hague’s shadow cabinet, which at the time included Michael Portillo, Francis Maude and Ann Widdecombe, Campbell said: “And if the Conservative leading personalities were not so unattractive, we would not have recovered from the fuel crisis in the way we have.”
He added: “Too many ministers are almost completely depoliticised in their language and activities.”
In a suggested cabinet speaking note for Blair on lack of coordination, Campbell wrote: “There is nothing worse than one minister thinking that his/her event has been planned as the major event of the day, and another minister kyboshes [sic] it.”
On the question of media ownership, No 10 aides discussed how to prevent TV stations from becoming “political” in the same way as newspaper were. Jeremy Heywood, Blair’s principal private secretary, emailed the media policy adviser Ed Richards: “I assume it’s unthinkable to impose accuracy regulations on newspapers? No other industry would get away with the practice of making up stories that even our most serious newspapers indulge in. Is there no country in the world that has a successful model of newspaper reg?”
Richards replied: “Personally I think it is nigh on impossible to introduce controls on the newspapers of the kind you propose (and probably suicidal to try).”
Ever mindful of media coverage, one memo before a cabinet away day at Chequers in 1998 stipulated: “Alastair needs a story for the day. TV will film people arriving and going so there can be no woolly jumpers.”