How to control the newspapers (aka. Explicit is better than implicit)

Ho hum, a spun day at the Guardian with this piece covering a double page spread on 8-9. Amelia Hill interviews a panel of prominent feminists about the Prime Minister’s new “women’s advisor”. You may have already guessed that they aren’t particularly impressed (an accurate headline might have been Thinking Individuals Find Sop Unsatisfying, Faintly Offensive), but the problem is not the content of the story, but its existence.

A quick search on Journalisted shows what’s actually going on here. Ever since the first weekend in October, roughly twice a month, the Government has been briefing the media that it’s doing something “to listen to women voters”.

Women as a demographic have turned sharply against the Tories quite some time ago. In fact, the polling shows a dramatic shift over Christmas, 2010, for reasons I’ve wondered about but never been able to make any conclusions on. See this chart of Anthony Wells’s.

But this got very little press right up to September. A decision was taken at some point in early September to spin the issue in the run-up to the Conservative conference, and on the 13th, the story was trailed by leaking it to the Daily Mail (i.e. to the intended target audience).

The 2nd of October saw the full-scale launch, with the local press being especially targeted (load the search – they hit syndication like a hammer and pretty much every local rag got it). Bypassing the nationals and briefing the local papers is an old Alistair Campbell trick you may remember from the Iraq war spin campaign, of course.

Since then, it’s been regularly re-announced, about twice a month. One can presume that there is a recurring item on the No.10 media grid for it.

So far, the sum total of actual action on this front consists of double-hatting the head of Francis Maude’s office, a bit of title inflation that the Guardian interviewees were rightly scornful of. But the real point here is that hours of work and a hugely prominent chunk of a national newspaper were dedicated to discussing this utterly content-free paper shuffle. And this has been going on for months, needing only a one-line e-mail to the cabinet secretary to support it in reality.

The return on investment is enormous. Great chunks of media space, time, and effort have been essentially neutralised, man-marked out of the game, all with a few press releases. This is the point of the exercise. If you are discussing the latest eye-catching initiative you are by definition not discussing anything else. Your eye has been caught. It’s why they’re called that.

Meanwhile, the latest on the Sun. Note this bit:

The source said that the investigation is not to do with “sources or expenses” claims by journalists.

Well, no, why would it be? Operation ELVEDEN is explicitly an investigation into bribes paid to police officers. What has it got to do with journalistic expenses, a private and trivial matter internal to News International? The answer is almost certainly that during Trevor Kavanagh’s comedy Ardennes Offensive earlier this week, it was privately briefed to the media that the police were arresting people over “£50 dinners for sources” (the figure actually appears in another Guardian story). This is clearly guff. But it achieved its purpose; in terms of cognitive anchoring, putting the notion out there sets the limits of what is expected. Even without its being mentioned explicitly, it controlled the content of this story!

It would obviously have been better if the Guardian had stated in so many words that “Representatives of News International [ideally NAMES TO GO HERE] have repeatedly suggested that journalists were arrested over expenses. The police source denied that this was the case and specifically said that the investigation has nothing to do with expenses”. Then we could, at least, make up our minds.

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