JOURNALISTS across the country are crying foul during this election because – they say – Jeremy Corbyn won’t speak to them and they’ve been booed at by his supporters, while Theresa May is so robotic in her media management on the campaign trail that she is passing through constituencies with hardly any discussion beyond the strong and stable leadership slogan. Perhaps the most striking example of the latter was a paper in Cornwall, Cornwall Live, which claimed reporters had been locked in a room while May toured an industrial estate. She has so far navigated the way to polling day with only minor interruptions to the outdoors script: a disability benefits question in Abingdon market, a googly about fox-hunting and one dud pic of her eating chips. Not bad going.
It’s not for me to say that a local journalist who isn’t plugged into the system or, even more likely, a member of the public is going to ask trickier questions and get more interesting answers from our most senior politicians than a national political correspondent or a lobby hack worried that one impertinent question too many might cost them their easy street access to the hand-out stories supplied by Downing Street… but it’s not a radical point of view. Sky News, as it happened, was suggesting yesterday that it had been punished for a challenging story about Boris Johnson with a reduction in access to the top faces in the government. If true, it makes you wonder how subservient the channels that do get the political headliners on their screens have been over recent weeks. While it’s not really clear how much the public care about a journalist feeling affronted by a lack of interview questions, newspapers and websites should not allow a pick-or-choose culture and we should all print which questions the people who are asking for your vote declined to answer. I like the tweet too, from Michael Crick, who told a Telegraph journalist not to worry so much about not getting everything laid on.
It’s interesting to watch the complaints of local press shutdowns from elsewhere, though, because so far in Hampstead and Kilburn there has been none of the strict, ‘do not approach the minister’ rules during campaign events here. You may say that Gavin Williamson, Karen Bradley and Liz Truss (topped up with some cameos from Jo and Stanley Johnson – where’s Boris? – and Ed Vaizey) are not the headline acts of May’s team and do not need the same protection, but they are cabinet members all the same and are at a level where a wrong step could go viral if captured by a reporter.
Needless to say arrangements would be very different if May herself was touring the Kilburn High Road, but each of the above basically said ‘any questions’ when we met them: Williamson stopped in Kilburn for a chat which didn’t feel rushed, Bradley took us upstairs into the local Conservative office for a coffee and Truss gave us some minutes in Maygrove Road in West Hampstead. The questions did not need to be pre-approved.
More of an issue in terms of how these interviews work has been, not how much time the reporter gets to ask the questions, but what comes back as an almost blanket response. Regardless of the topic, they are all adept at bring everything back to either Corbyn or Brexit, sometimes both. That means you can have all the access in the world but the element of control remains; for example, when we asked Williamson about food banks, the response was not anything about what has caused the rise in their use or whether or not the government feels responsible for their increased prevalence. Instead he riffed about how they showed a need for a strong economy which, you guessed it, we wouldn’t get under keyword one: Corbyn or if keyword two: Brexit was not properly negotiated.
The arrival of cabinet troops on the ground is an interesting development in itself should be noted by those of us wondering what will happen in Hampstead and Kilburn on June 8. In the Conservatives’ ‘visibly tired’ campaign here in 2015, Conservative candidate Simon Marcus never seemed to appreciate the value of these visits and set pieces. Of course, they help with the press war as competing interests search for the same media column inches and website pixels. But what they really help with is momentum; small ‘m’. They show to the people knocking on doors for you that they are part of a meaningful campaign taken seriously be central office, a real target on the ground rather than one simply marked up on a majorities scorecard. In return, they are more likely to give more back in time and effort to get out the vote.
The contrasting approach this time, to welcome ministerial visits rather than giving them the swerve, hints at the enthusiasm inside the Tory office in Heath Hurst Road. What’s more there is a level of confidence which wasn’t there last time. Take this, in Maygrove Road that afternoon, Claire-Louise Leyland and Truss picked doors at random in this Labour held council ward to canvass in front of me. Interestingly, Truss chose one that looked like it might be a bit of a disaster for her: a run down door, a broken window and so on. Of all the houses to choose in that road, she chose that one, to knock on in front of a journalist. Without second guessing what lies behind any door in our diverse borough, maybe her press officer shuddered a little inside. I don’t think the same thing would’ve happened two years ago, not with the press there at least.
As it happened the man inside took a leaflet even though he was voting for another party, and the moment passed – only for a woman passing on her way home from the shops to demand a word. Would this be an opponent? No – she wanted to tell them how much she liked May. She went on to say she had almost always voted Labour but she “couldn’t stand” Diane Abbott and that Corbyn was “a dick, because he was so old-fashioned”. The Tories’ smiled, and insisted their new friend wasn’t a hired stooge. That would’ve taken media management to a whole new level.