On 17 September 1998, the Guardian published a rather curious and enigmatic photograph of David Blunkett enjoying a pint of beer, ensconced behind the bar of the Queen Vic on the set of BBC's popular soap opera EastEnders. Soap stars Patsy Palmer (Bianca) and Sid Owen (Ricky) were pictured on either side of the politician, although their pose signalled a preference for reading above drinking. Bianca's favoured 'literary tipple', held carefully to display the cover title, was Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island; Ricky s more controversial but popular choice was John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The logos emblazoned on the actors' T-shirts, which announced the beginning of the National Year of Reading (NYR), identified the policy context for this particular photo opportunity.
Such occasions have become routine events for government ministers and central to the process of policy presentation. The current emphasis on the media packaging of policy means that ministers are more likely to be seen on television opening a new hospital building or feeding their children beef-burgers during a food scare than engaged in more traditional activities such as debating at the despatch box in the House of Commons. But the photo opportunity at the Queen Vic was only a modest part of an extensive campaign to promote the National Year of Reading: the first in a series of television advertisements had been broadcast the previous evening. The Queen Vic was a particularly apposite setting for the campaign launch because the soap opera was introducing a new story line which involved the character Grant Mitchell reading to his baby daughter Courtney. Government press officers working on the campaign had also persuaded drama producers to feature story lines about literacy in other popular soap operas including Brookside, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Grange Hill over the coming year.
These advertising campaigns are undoubtedly problematic because of the extent to which their pre-packaged policy messages are injected into light entertainment programmes and soap operas, rather than being confined to more conventional advertising formats such as posters and leaflets. The campaign launch certainly proved controversial. Under the headline 'Big brother Blunkett is accused', the Daily Mail quoted a Conservative spokesperson who