Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Westminster Goes Local

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Westminster Goes Local

Article excerpt

Earlier this year, I was a judge for the Royal Television Society's regional journalism awards. There was a surprising common factor among the entries in the Best Presenter category: pretty much all of them featured an interview with David Cameron. He perched himself on a sofa in Salford for the news in the north, appeared live from an outside broadcast in the West Country and displayed expert knowledge of improvements to the A14 on the BBC's Look East.

This was not a phenomenon of the imminent general election. BBC local radio websites show activity throughout the parliament. In November 2012, Radio Lincolnshire was advertising a double bill: "David Cameron and Matt Baker from The One Show will be on Melvyn in the Morning." In July 2013, he was on Radio Leeds. "David Cameron gives you SEVEN reasons why you shouldn't be too glum about things," proclaimed the station's Facebook page, before he headed off to Radio Merseyside, Radio Manchester and more. Other parties do the same--Nick Clegg, for example, has developed a useful profile on LBC--and these stations are as much bound by the need to be politically balanced as their bigger network colleagues. But I'm told that Downing Street and the Conservative campaign remain particularly well organised in regional and local broadcasting strategy; and I'm sure that no other serving prime minister has popped up on those stations quite so often. Margaret Thatcher certainly didn't when I was working in local radio.

Partly this reflects the two campaigns in this election. There's the national one, obsessively watched by inhabitants of the Westminster bubble, and there's the ground war, in which a party leader's chat on local radio can be a useful supplement to the constituency effort. Regional TV has the additional advantage of getting the biggest news audiences of the day and of reaching voters who would never watch Channel 4 News or Question Time. Hence politicians' eagerness in this campaign to subject themselves to panels of voters on Look North and equivalents elsewhere on the BBC and ITV.

It is not right to imagine that these are always an easy ride. But this strategy is lower-risk than appearances in the 8.10am slot on the Today programme and infinitely less of a gamble than Ed Miliband's agreement to take part in the "challengers' debate" on BBCi on 16 April. Most of the local appearances stay below the radar--unless, like Miliband, you're unfortunate enough not to recognise the name of Labour's leader for Swindon when appearing on Radio Wiltshire. Because of the potential for free hits in the more relaxed parts of its output, the BBC monitors closely where party leaders are giving interviews. Its 2015 guidelines confirm that all bids for political leader interviews and offers from the parties must be referred to the chief political adviser. …

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