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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Labour tactics stir media unrest
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

It may only be the third day of the election campaign, but already the natives are getting restless - at least the media natives are.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Labour leaders at a poster launch

They are not exactly thrilled with the way the Labour Party is tightly controlling media coverage of the prime minister.

An example came during an election poster launch by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at Billingsgate fish market.

According to the few journalists who were able to attend the event, once the two men had done their bit for the cameras - and it is the TV audience these events are really aimed at - some of the journalists attempted to ask questions.

At which point a phalanx of party supporters - apparently bussed in for these occasions - were pushed in front of their leaders to shield them from the prying media. No questions were allowed.

They also seemed to burst into coordinated clapping just at the right time to drown out questions from the press.

Too late

It is being suggested that this is to be the norm for this campaign.

After the prime minister announced the date of the election from Downing Street - taking no questions from the media - he was then helicoptered off to a party event in Dorset with just a tiny group of hacks in tow.

By the time the great mass of media were told of the venue it was far too late for them to attend.

Tony Blair
Claims Blair is being shielded from press
And even those who were there found themselves virtually excluded from the event.

That brought the first complaint, from the Sun newspaper whose political editor Trevor Kavanagh wrote: "Labour is keeping the media at bay in what threatens to become the most stage-managed campaign in election history".

Similarly, when the prime minister visited a supermarket in South London on Tuesday only a single reporter was invited along to the "meet the people" event. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a Sun reporter.

It is also the case that Labour has abandoned the traditional daily London press conferences during this campaign, preferring to send Mr Blair around the country meeting ordinary voters without what they believe is the unhelpful filter of the media.

More open

There are echoes here of the 1987 general election campaign when similar, if less draconian measures were taken to allegedly shield Neil Kinnock from what was seen as a hostile press.

Needless to say, the attempts to "hide" the Labour leader briefly became the story of the campaign.

But does any of this really amount to a strategy to keep the prime minister away from the difficult, "unhelpful" members of the press corps?

Both the prime minister and the chancellor faced the press for the best part of an hour on the second day of the campaign and fielded all questions thrown at them.

And there will undoubtedly be other similar occasions throughout the battle.

And, in any case, there are those who believe it is far more open and challenging for the prime minister to engage directly with members of the public without his words being "spun" by the media.

Critics, of course, complain that even those occasions are heavily policed by the party to ensure their man is not ambushed by disgruntled voters.

Finally, isn't all of this simply a mark of professional, modern campaigning aimed at avoiding what Labour bosses would view as any attempts by hostile newspapers to torpedo the campaign?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of it all, this is likely to become an increasing issue over the coming days and weeks.



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