LABOUR'S ELECTION NEWS JITTERS
The press: Paul Johnson
fears Kinnock is losing his cool
AS THE election approaches, there are signs that it will be marked by bitter battles between the Labour leadership and the press. Neil Kinnock started out with friendly feelings from most journalists, who welcomed his youth and presented himself and his wife as a handsome and brainy couple. But somehow everything went wrong: largely, I think, because of his two ill-timed and badly prepared trips to America. Now he and his entourage regard the press with venom, and this threatens to have a disastrous effect on his election tactics.
The danger for a Labour leader trailing badly in the polls is to retreat into the applause and support of the party faithful and forget the voters as a whole. This is fatally easy to do, and Michael Foot succumbed to the temptation in 1983. But at least he avoided any open breach with the media. There are now reports that Kinnock, in his desire to discount the metropolitan press, will give a provincial emphasis to his election programme and play down the daily morning press confer- ences at Transport House. If so, it will be a grievous self-inflicted wound. These three party briefings, taking place in quick suc- cession at 8.30 (Alliance), 9.00 (Labour) and 9.30 (Tory), are really the heart of the media presentation of the entire campaign, often determining the topic for the day and the pattern of the critically important early evening television coverage. Mrs Thatcher, who loves facing journalists and never ducks a question, made effective use of them in 1983. Foot was less successful, chiefly because of clumsy attempts by party officials to limit questions on defence. But at least Foot was there most days. If Kinnock, in effect, boycotts them, the Labour leader's 'unwillingness' to answer questions, not only on defence but on a much wider agenda, will itself become a nagging campaign issue. The truth is that it never pays to have a row with the press. You may hate them and think their behaviour intolerable, but quarrelling with the press makes no more sense than abusing the voters. The thing to remember about journalists — Harold Wilson in his prime never forgot it — is that what they want from you is fresh information they can turn into a tasty story. If you are hostile, they will turn that into a story too. To use the press, to exploit them as they try to exploit you, requires intelligently contrived positive offerings. Kinnock and his people seem to have no talent for this approach. I thought, for instance, he might have helped the launch of the new left-wing tabloid, News on Sunday, by giving it a bit of inside informa- tion which would have got the paper into the television news bulletins. But there was no sign he did anything for it, other than sending a rather pedestrian message. Nor was there much evidence the paper will do anything for him: its flavour is sectarian rather than loyalist.
The new paper did have one good news-story. It revealed, in a report by Tony Paley, that no fewer than 134 horses died while racing in 1985 (a further 29 died off-course from injuries) and that in 1986 the death-toll rose to the shocking total of 179. In the wake of the distress caused by the death of Dark Ivy in this year's Grand National, the investgation was well-timed. Granted the length of the steeplechasing season, from September to April, and the number of events, the figures will not surprise horsy people, but they shook me, and I think will have appalled most rea- ders. In my view this was a story which, properly presented, could have made an excellent front page, underlining the new paper's claim to responsible news-values and selling copies too. Instead it was buried on pages 42 and 43. The front page itself was a disaster. An unemployed young man who was selling his kidney turned out to be Brazilian: collapse of interest. The main splash about sensational secrets, trail- ing a page 11 story, was an irritating 'joke': it claimed that the menu in the Defence Ministry canteen was 'Top Secret'. It would be hard to think of a front page more likely to kill reader interest.
As election fever grips the country, or at any rate the Political Nation, the natural front page for a new paper of this kind avowedly committed, with a strong left- wing flavour — would have been a political one. But here was the mystery. There was a political slant to most of the items in the paper. Both its gossip columns (clumsily facing each other) made political or class- and-money points in virtually every item. Even its agony column dealt with the rights of 'Worried School Leaver' to claim the dole, and the guilt of a housewife carrying on with an unemployed man. But in all this political consciousness the paper lacked a single good political news-story or even solid political feature. At a time when the rest of the press is full of polls and calculations, News on Sunday failed to provide serious election analysis. So, by a curious paradox, the paper set up for a definite political purpose ducked the main political story of the day. There can be no excuse for such a failure. The paper's launch, as it turns out, is well timed. Newspaper sales traditionally rise during election periods. But such luck has to be systematically exploited. Unless the paper gets to grips with the political news this weekend, I would not rate its survival chances high.
A further criticism: the paper is too down-market. There is a painful absence of good writing, or serious writing of any kind. This makes no political sense, and no commercial sense either. The success of the Independent, which turned in an aver- age sale of 288,660 for the October 1986– March 1987 period and is now close to the magic 300,000 figure, indicates that the market for quality papers is actually ex- panding. Total sales for the five quality dailies were up 237,938 on the six months, a gain of nearly ten per cent. There can be little doubt that the Independent's appeal lies mainly in the sophisticated flavour of its writing (though its elegant appearance and striking photos have helped). A gener- al improvement in the incisiveness and sheer literary skill of the writing also explains the dramatic turn-round in the sales of the Sunday Telegraph, where a steady decline in sales has been reversed into a gain of nearly 30,000 during the last six months. In a remarkably short time it has succeeded in establishing itself as a writer's paper, where the gifted are en- couraged to perform at their idiosyncratic best. This in itself is an achievement. But that it should have received such an emphatic demonstration of reader approv- al is heartening. All editors and proprietors should take note: writing is now back in fashion.