How twitter and Leveson have destroyed the government’s media strategy

by Atul Hatwal

So he’s still got a job. Jeremy Hunt hangs on, defying political gravity. His performance yesterday at Leveson was woeful. Between the further revelations of his simpering texts to James Murdoch and near tearful demeanour, it was by any standards, a dreadful day for the Tory.

But despite all of this, thanks to some catastrophic media management choices made at the top of the government, Jeremy Hunt is still standing.

It’s almost possible to see the meeting: Craig Oliver, Gabby Bertin, George Osborne, all sat round the table at their morning huddle. Yes, it is going to be tough. Yes the evidence is damning. But the public don’t get the detail of Leveson. They just think all politicians are in hock to Murdoch and besides, as long as Hunt stays in post, he remains the story.

Which means David Cameron is not.

This was the rationale behind the PM’s decision to continue backing his critically compromised secretary of state for culture, media and sport: a whole-hearted vote of confidence in his personal, human shield.

In one sense the government media panjandrums are right. David Cameron is nowhere to be found in today’s headlines. It’s all Hunt. But everything has a price to pay, and in this case it is the collective confidence of the lobby journalists.

Although individual newspapers are no longer as influential as in the past – it’s unlikely that the Sun will ever again be the one wot won it– the club of parliamentary journalists still wields massive power when they form a common view.

On these occasions, this shared perspective becomes the lens through which all news, print, broadcast and online,  is projected.

For the government, after just two years in office, such a view has formed. The leitmotif in the lobby narrative on the government’s media strategy is now incompetence.

It colours all reporting and increasingly undermines the government’s ability to run the news cycle. Positive stories are treated with suspicion, negative stories with credibility. For Labour, it took over a decade to reach this nadir.

Even given the number of U-turns, economic turbulence and toxicity of hacking, it is remarkable that the collective media swoon in the rose garden in May 2010 has turned so decisively to a unanimous sneer by May 2012.

There are a range of reasons for such a dramatic reversal, but two in particular have driven the pace and depth of change in the lobby’s position: twitter, which has fundamentally changed the nature of the lobby journalist’s role; and Leveson which has been a catalyst for shifting their opinion.

Tweeting is now part of the standard lobby journalist job description. As individuals, these journalists each have several thousand followers, eager to read the latest 140 character update on what’s happening. This has had two results.

First, journalists’ immediate reactions are often more honest and even-handed than articles that have passed through the filter of a loaded newsroom. Once the instant judgement is out there in twitter-land, it becomes harder for the journalist to walk it back in a piece that takes a more dogmatic, partisan line.

Having a personal fanbase of thousands is addictive. Journalists are only human. The reaction of twitter followers to inconsistencies between what is tweeted and what appears in the paper is a powerful new influence on journalists.

Second, while twitter generates pressures that make the lobby more politically independent of their employers, paradoxically, it makes the individual journalists much more alike. The tenor and judgement of tweets reacting to events are remarkably similar across the lobby.

One thing you will never see: two lobby journalists tearing into each other on twitter. Bloggers, yes. Lobby, no.

The net impact of twitter has been to embed an even higher level of groupthink amongst the political journalists, and most important of all, to make this hive-mind view public, on a minute by minute basis.

If twitter has driven new levels of transparent consensus among the lobby, then the Leveson inquiry has given them unprecedented detail on government incompetence, around which they can unite.

The journalists have been physically sat together for days on end, watching the political equivalent of Wimbledon. Jay versus a series of government politicians and advisers, with all of it analysed, evaluated and tweeted in real time.

Unlike the public, the lobby has pored over the detail of testimony and evidence. They have sifted the mountains of e-mails and texts, never before revealed to their profession. And they have fully grasped each and every point where Jeremy Hunt has said one thing in public to the House of Commons and then done something very different in private.

The journalists have seen David Cameron not even attempt to directly address issues such as the breach of the ministerial code or whether Hunt misled the House.

These are clear points of right or wrong. Unlike policy issues, such as the measures in the budget where there are always pros and cons to be weighed, Leveson has revealed binary cases where the government has been wrong and no one from their side has even tried to substantively defend those points.

Leveson through the twitter looking glass has destroyed lobby trust in the government.

The one measure that Cameron could have taken to change the media consensus would have been to sack Hunt. He could have faced into the truth, acknowledged what the journalists can all see and responded.

By opting to ignore political reality, and hang onto Hunt, Cameron might have kept the fire from his door for a few days more, but only at the cost of his entire media strategy.

That no one in Downing street seems to understand what it means to lose the lobby like this will ultimately be far more lethal to the government’s political prospects than any of Hunt’s dissembling.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut

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11 Responses to “How twitter and Leveson have destroyed the government’s media strategy”

  1. Robert says:

    I think this is a bit rich from a party who chased the Murdock’s, leave the bloke along he will destroy himself he does not need any of Murdock’s godfathers helping

  2. Anon E Mouse says:

    The difference is Cameron doesn’t suck up to the Murdoch’s in the way that the Labour Party did.

    With the popularity in the country of Mudoch products amongst normal people, Labour realised that the only way they would win elections was with News International so who can blame them?

    All that will happen after this money wasting phone hacking nonsense that no one cares about is Cameron will be back in favour with News International who will portray Miliband as Wallace in a cartoon on the front page of the Sun, Britain’s most popular newspaper and it’s game over.

    Stop these silly articles please and start working on a strategy for Labour to gain votes at the next election and offer a credible opposition.

    I have yet to read an article from this author that has offered a single positive reason to vote Labour – all he writes are dreary negative anti government speculations that will not help Labour’s cause.

    This type of stuff reminds everyone of Gordon Brown and how he droned on and on and on.

    The public do not like negative campaigning any more than they care about someone’s background, whether an Eton educated toff like Cameron or a multi millionaire tax avoiding toff like Miliband they all look the same to ordinary voters.

  3. Brumanuensis says:

    @Anon E Mouse

    “The difference is Cameron doesn’t suck up to the Murdoch’s in the way that the Labour Party did”.


    I beg to differ.

    Anon E Mouse, does the fact that major national newspapers may have committed illegal or at the very least seriously unethical acts, and have simultaneously had improper proximity to senior government ministers, not bother you? It’s all very well to say ‘Labour did the same’, which they did up to a point, but it’s not a defence of the current government is it?

    Also, do you really think proximity to Murdoch is going to be a vote-winner at the next election?

  4. swatantra says:

    I don’t do Twitter or Facebook or Texting, being conveniently IT illiterate in those 3 particular media depts, thank goodness.

  5. Anon E Mouse says:


    Are you seriously comparing the texts or going to parties as being the same as the way the Labour Party sucked up to the Murdochs?

    Just look at the number of meetings and social engagements Gordon Brown went to with Rupert Murdoch or Tony Blair as godfather to his child.

    They are not comparable. Brooks and Cameron are practically neighbours anyway.

    As for Murdoch no normal people care or even know what this phone “hacking” nonsense is about. They continue to watch Sky TV and Sky Sports in their droves and read the Sun newspaper in greater numbers than any other.

    Just because some poncy film star like Hugh Grant is too f*^king stupid to change the access code on his voicemail from 0000 then more the fool him.

    When I watch the BBC and hear emotive drivel such as “brutal cuts” to describe getting rid of some deadwood in the public services we should never have paid for it all seems equal really.

    I notice Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were both at the News International party last June. Why was that do you think Brumanuensis?

    Because despite all the hypocrisy and soundbites Labour realise exactly how important Rupert Murdoch is for their electoral chances in this country even if you don’t seem to. (No offence)…

  6. Qwerty says:

    This love about twitter and Facebook is reaching new levels. Last spring the topic was the Facebook and internet revolution in the Arabic countries. The result today in Egypt? The old regime or the Islamists… So much for the new…

    Cameron destroyed the trust of his electorate through a badly conceived budget and an unfinished business about a referendum. As for the homosexual “marriage”, it has become une guerre des tranchée…

  7. swatantra says:

    Mubarak didn’t have much truck with the Islamic Brotherhood; in fact he went out of his way to be unpleasant to them and throw them in prison. In fact the Arabs are ruled by minority cliques anyway, whether it’s Egypt Iraq or Libya or Jordon or Saudi Arabia. Like most emerging democracies they have a vague idea of what democracy means and entails. The IB seem to be making a sweep across the Arab World given the opportunity. When the verdict was announced there was a punch up in Court. The Egyptians went out of their way to give M a fair trial before they hung him, only the disappointing thing was that the death sentence wasn’t given; 2 of his sons got off, to carry on the fight another day.
    In situations like this its wiser to make a clean break with the past and old Regime.

  8. swatantra says:

    … that should have read ‘ Muslim Brotherhood’

  9. Reconstruct says:

    Well, doubtless the Lobby’s twitterings are endlessly interesting to the Lobby and the handful of sad-sacks that follow them.

    But your initial judgement is surely correct: Leveson is bewilderingly dull, the Labour party are as much, if not more, guilty of sucking up to Murdoch, and frankly. . .

    . . . most people who care about politics remember that it was the Labour party that brought in people like Alastair Campbell and Damien McBride into No 10. After that, the best they can hope for is that people will admire them for their brass neck in this matter.

  10. Max says:

    Wow. Anon E Mouse sounds like a Tory hack…

  11. Debbie Hollenbeck says:

    It isn’t surprising that politicians are now using social media to push thorough their respective agendas. The only thing that I feel good about this is that in the twitter universe, everyone is in equal footing. If he hits, we can hit back with a a lot of tweets.

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