What you’ve always wanted to know about the Fourth Estate but were afraid to ask

The Westminster press corps was once memorably described by House of Cards über-baddie Francis Urquhart – with only the merest hint of a sardonically raised eyebrow – as “those valiant seekers after truth.” And even today the work of the lobby continues to expose falsehood and deception wheresoever they might find it without fear or favour, to enhance the public’s understanding of serious political issues and raise the level of the debate, to praise the praiseworthy and to shame the shameless.

Well. At least until the bars open.

However, and without wishing to cast aspersions on Prime Minister Urquhart’s undoubted Machiavelli stylings, the fact remains that when he was pitching his bid for the leadership, the media’s appetite for sleaze, gossipy titbits, information about MPs’ private lives – not to mention their dogged determination to see conspiracy everywhere – was significantly less voracious than it is today. Thinking back to the halcyon days, pre-1997, it seems that then all a politician had to do to ensure good media coverage was to abstain from nudity in public places and not turn up on College Green roaring drunk too often.

In the late noughties, the rules are very different. Journalists are ordered to sniff out scoops and scandal by that most demanding mistress: twenty-four hour news. This dominatrix has reformed the way the media works to the extent that media backrooms are staffed by teams of journalistic monkeys all desperately polishing pieces of political turd in the hope they can shine them up to be “breaking news” or a “top story” come the hourly bulletin.

Factor in the new Volunteer Army of bloggers – who all type angrily and deprecatingly about the mainstream press but secretly want nothing more than to be invited on the telly to be OUTRAGED about said minutiae – and you’ve got a media melting pot brewing trouble for elected representatives and bag-carriers everywhere.

But, fear ye not, for Dean Trench is here to help.

Writing a press release

Ask not what your boss’ thoughts on composting in Bangor can do to improve political discourse, ask what are the chances that the hack you’re sending it to will copy and past it wholesale into their organ of record.

You should always write a press release with the ultimate aspiration that it’s going to be nicked in its entirety and presented by the newspapers as an independent testimony as to how goddamn hot your boss truly is. Journalists are busy people working hard day and night at making politics more accountable, so why not make their lives easier by doing their job for them?

Some things to bear in mind when writing a release:

  • Genuflect before the mighty power of CTRL+C and CTRL+V: Draft the press release as you’d imagine it would appear in a paper, had the paper actually wanted to spend time discovering what Joe Bloggs MP thought of post-legislative scrutiny. Write “story” part of the release with bias but don’t make it so screamingly partisan that the journalist will have to put in extra work on it to make it printable because, more often than not, they’ll just consign it to the deleted items folder and look for something else.
  • Quotes: A quote from your MP is where you can afford to partisan things up slightly. MPs love the sound of their own voices even when they are imagining their written work spoken aloud, so try to be firm if your boss gives you a quote of such length that even Stalin would baulk at the thought repeating it in front of a tough crowd. Brevity is the soul of modern journalism, not least because it makes the CTRL+C and CTRL+V-ing a lot easier and quicker.
  • Don’t throw a wobbler: Disappointing as it may be that your first article to appear in the national media is not credited to you, it is a fact of life in the noble profession of bag-carrying that all our best work will have some other bloke’s name attached to it, and the only time when we’re allowed to take the “credit” is when our employer has done something jaw-droppingly stupid and a fall guy is required. That’s OUR time to shine!

Organising a press call

See also: “brilliant idea, I have a”.

With the blossoming of different forms of media, MPs have become more creative about how they pursue their most burning passion: getting their face on the telly. These days it usually means a press call organised for the benefit of the national news crews, taking place on College Green. The most common type of call is the slagging-off-the-leadership effort, which is guaranteed to work the news teams into a frenzy of speculation and will ensure your MP gets invited on many other political programmes to repeat his or her remarks. Expect, however, a chill wind blowing from their colleagues afterwards – not to mention a selection of baleful gazes from your whips’ office.

The other type of press call is both more common and difficult to organise. Often your Member will want to highlight a local issue in an unusual way that gets the national media interested. This can often involve wacky costumes, Early Day Motions, cross-party working, and major headaches for all concerned. Crack out a press call (remembering to include your mobile number as you will be outside for most of the day attempting to manage the madness) stressing the importance of the issue and glossing over why it needs your Member dressed as Guy of Gisbourne and wielding a sword to demonstrate this. Remember, it’s all about appearing on the telly.

This is something I overheard once after a press call went bad. It’s an exaggeration, but not by much: “The whips’ office weren’t impressed, especially after the horse went mental, and God knows how we’re going to explain the hoof-marks on the Maid Marian costume to the fancy dress shop, but I’ve just heard from the hospital and the boss is fine apart from a couple of cracked ribs.”

Briefing journalists

Often the first thing you learn when working for an MP is to never, under any circumstances, ever use your own initiative. However there are circumstances where interaction on your employer’s behalf is necessary to avert a media storm. Here are a few tips:

  • You are not speaking for your boss: The nature of the political beast means that MPs are expected to be experts on every statutory instrument to have ever graced the Ways and Means corridor. But unless the one who pays your wages would be right at home in a Question Time audience, it’s unlikely they are going to be able to summon an opinion on the Polish Potato Order that’s both in line with your party’s thinking and sounds reasonably authoritative at a moment’s notice. And, let’s face it, neither are you. Listen carefully to what’s being asked, assure the journo that it’s an important issue that your boss has given some thought to and then …:
  • Hot foot it down the library: Pull together a one-sided briefing based on library research, a couple of press cuttings and – if your party’s political unit is on the ball – key lines to take.
  • Sketch out a quote: Draft a couple of lines that you think encapsulate the position you should be taking but NEVER release them until you have cleared them with your boss.

Ideally, the journalist should speak to the MP directly, but try to ensure that he or she has at least a nodding acquaintance with the bones of this issue before they meet in order to avoid embarrassing silences, blank looks, and vague mutterings which are open to misconstruction (and repetition in the diary columns) if they are deployed in response to a query about The Burning Issue of the afternoon.

The importance of the local media

Your local media is arguably more important to your boss’ re-election hopes than the most prominent article in the nationals … unless that article is detailing eye-watering indiscretions undertaken on the Parliamentary estate. For this reason, it’s always worth developing a good relationship with the hacks at your local rag, not least because if you take them seriously, they will take you seriously and maybe even tip you off as to upcoming issues in your Member’s patch and come to you first for quotes and comments.

Handling the blogosphere

The blogosphere, as we all know is neither as important as it thinks it is nor as irrelevant as the mainstream media contends. If you get rung up by a blogger in pursuit of a story, answer courteously and shortly as you would any other journalist. As with MPs, never underestimate the importance of flattery when it comes to the blogosphere and those who inhabit it.

Whatever you do, do not allow your MP to pick up the phone to a reasonably well-known member of the emerging online wing of the fourth estate and answer, “What? You’re from the internet? You’ve got a what? A blog? Well, that sounds like a job for the clap clinic, sonny, not me – hur hur! Seriously though, I’ve never heard of you. Chuff off.”

Not unless you want to spend the next three weeks dealing with outraged emails from those taking up arms (or spam campaigns, in this instance) on their brother blogger’s behalf.

The live interview

Apart from the normal research, briefings, and diary jiggling required to make an interview happen, ensure before a live one your boss repeats after you five hundred times: “I am aware that Parliamentary privilege does not extend to slanderous observations I might feel the need to impart to Jon Craig live on air.”

Armageddon: getting a call from the Sundays at 5pm on a Friday 

Sunday papers are known for calling in the ten minute window on a Friday between every lawyer in the United Kingdom heading off for the pub and you attempting to do the same. This is usually done for two equally important reasons:

  • So your employer is forced to respond to their allegations without having first spoken to his or her solicitor, meaning that there’s more of a chance they’ll mess it up and say something that can be spun as incriminating;
  • So your employer has a really rubbish weekend.

If you found yourself caught in this situation, it is time to engage the four-part rule known amongst bag-carriers as “BUTT”. Largely because it sounds a bit rude:

  • Breathe: Take a breath, and attempt to be calm;
  • Understand: Make sure you make extensive notes of what the specific problem appears to be;
  • Talk: When you speak, ensure that you are helpful but non-committal in your answers. You may have a burning desire to run screaming from the building, but try and repress that one as best you can as a hysterical reaction can, occasionally, induce suspicion in the most trusting member of the fourth estate;
  • Telephone number: Ask for the journalist’s number and tell them that your boss will call them back. Chances are that he or she will already have your employer’s number, but try and ensure a bit of breathing space in between the hack hanging up on you and speaking to your boss which you can use to brief them on the query.

Then say a couple of Hail Marys, get religion, and wait on tenterhooks for the arrival of Sunday.

Added on 16th June 2009