The Impact on Political Communications

Portland’s own George Pascoe-Watson on the diversification of sources for political journalists

 The digital revolution has dramatically changed the way politics itself is conducted.

MPs, government departments, advisers and political journalists have been forced to alter the way they do business because of the power of online.

Computers, Twitter, social networks, smartphones, iPads and the rest were meant to be tools to make life easier for us.

But now, gadgets and the internet have conspired to change forever everything to do with politics.

Sophisticated users turn them to their advantage.

The clever communicator will use a host of outlets to publicise his thinking, whilst using others to downgrade his opponent’s view – either their policy or the personality.

Small tip-offs to bloggers like Guido Fawkes can often create a snowball effect which culminates in a Fleet Street firestorm or a TV special.

The real professional doesn’t reject tabloids like the News of the World. Indeed, he uses the papers mercilessly to shape the environment.

Princess Diana herself regularly tipped-off paparazzi photographers about her movements so she could create her brand without leaving any fingerprints.

The revolution began with Sky News and the 24 hour cycle.

Government announcements were once made at the time and place of a department’s choosing, with an administration going at a snail’s pace.

Details of the Falklands War were reported to newspapers in the Commons, through statements to Parliament, with Lobby journalists phoning over their stories late at night in little booths outside the Press Gallery.

The unfolding drama filed by the war reporters who had travelled to the south Atlantic with the UK military convoy only arrived days after the events themselves.

Fleet Street photographers once had to carry their own dark rooms with them – turning hotel bathrooms into places where they could develop film before using a “wire machine” to send those prints back to London on phone lines.

It was commonplace for my “snapper” to be a dab hand at stripping down the phone wires in hotels anywhere in the world – from a Caribbean beach to downtown Moscow.

But that was then. Everything changed with the digital age.

Photos of events can be published in newspapers around the world within minutes of the events taking place thanks to digital technology.

Twenty-four hour news channels mean the whole life of a story becomes an event which demands choreography.

Once, the minister’s statement was all that was required.

Now the choreography itself becomes part of the drama – partly to fill airtime on 24 hour news channels, and partly because every element of news is open to scrutiny like never before.

A resigning Prime Minister no longer makes a statement on the steps of number 10 Downing Street.

His or her journey to Buckingham Palace is filmed live from helicopters. The screen is split so that footage of his successor’s movements are also being filmed live.

Government press offices were once sleepy places where officials’ duties were to tell the Press absolutely nothing.

I well remember the frustrations of having to deal with this attitude when I arrived in the Lobby in 1994, two weeks before Tony Blair became Labour Party leader.

The Sun was supporting John Major’s Tories and were crying out for positive, supportive stories.

But government press officers refused to publicise positive stories because it was alien to their culture.

The revolution brought in by Alastair Campbell’s regime was enormous and permanent.

Nowadays it’s commonplace for a government department to have a Facebook page.

Ministers have now struck a deal with Facebook to get users to come up with ideas to save State cash in the round of spending cuts.

The successful MP with a view on his future has to boast a Facebook page nowadays.

And from what I can work out,  half the current Cabinet regularly Tweet their thoughts and diaries.

Live and constant TV has meant newspapers need fewer and fewer reporters.

I covered John Prescott hitting a voter in the 2001 general election and Tony Blair being buttonholed by a hospital patient’s wife by sitting in my Commons office watching live on TV.

Political correspondents who’d travelled with Mr Blair to the launch of Labour’s election manifesto missed both events.

But now the market is flooded with information thanks to the explosion of blogging and Twitter.

Wanna-be journalists are setting up in their droves, publishing all sorts of information which very often is drivel.

But no political correspondent can afford to dismiss the work of an obscure blogger – in case they have uncovered a true gem.

Twitter feeds are often filled with nothing more interesting than what their author had for lunch.

But not always.

All this information must be sifted by political correspondents, by government media professionals, by MPs’ researchers, by thinktanks, by other bloggers.

This has become an incredibly time-consuming exercise and it is dangerously simple to miss a golden nugget.

Media outlets must be constantly monitored by government press offices with digests prepared on a rolling basis.

Outgoing press secretary to Gordon Brown, Michael Ellam, told me at his leaving party he could not have survived without the advent of the Politics Home website.

This collates every political outburst, gaffe and orchestrated statement uttered anywhere in the corridors of power.

When the Prime Minister’s own press secretary has to rely on a website for his eyes and ears, you know the tail is wagging the dog.

George Pascoe-Watson is a Partner at Portland and previously served as Political Editor of the Sun.