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What print journalists, broadcasters, commentators and bloggers want from Andy Coulson's successor

Tim Montgomerie

Over the last 24 hours I've spoken to ten people who regularly interact with the Downing Street communications operation. The ten include political reporters on newspapers, journalists who have worked or work on 24 hour news channels, two weekly columnists and two bloggers. I asked them what they'd like to see from the operation that replaces Andy Coulson. These are the main things I was told:

  • Briefing on strategy: There is a big gap between what Andy Coulson and Gabby Bertin provide. A gap between someone who controls the overall grid of government announcements and the person who delivers the daily briefings. What is needed is a senior person, who enjoys the confidence of the Prime Minister, who will explain the strategic thinking behind announcements to political editors (regularly) and who is also available to political reporters. "What we have now," said one political journalist, "is regular contact with someone who only gives us lines to take and no contact with anyone who gives us the big picture."
  • Osborne's role: George Osborne remains an incredibly important source of "strategic chat". "If I really want to know why the government is doing something I go to George," said a commentator, "but he's Chancellor of the Exchequer. Someone else should be able to do what he does." The Chancellor also shoulders responsibility for many relationships with newspaper proprietors. Express owner Richard Desmond has little contact with David Cameron, for example, but George Osborne recently addressed the Norwood Charity, of which he is a supporter.
  • Message focus: One reporter had to make eight calls before finding someone who could explain the thinking behind an announcement. There is also the problem of the Coalition's breakneck speed. One source told me: "If the government wasn't doing so much we could have a month in which one subject filled the grid and we could really get to grips with it. That's what New Labour did when they were at their best. That's impossible at the moment. There's a different topic almost every day. I have no idea what the government's top three messages are." 
  • Less silence: One journalist explained how they received almost no feedback to a campaign against one key aspect of government policy. "It was almost as if they decided we were beyond redemption and they gave up on us. The position we took would probably not have been so strident if we felt they were engaging with us. We felt we needed to shout to get noticed at all."
  • Steve Field's civil service press unit was thought to be good but couldn't give the political advice that journalists most needed. Two hoped that Telegraph reports that a civil servant might replace Andy Coulson were wrong.
  • Rolling news channels: The new Number 10 operation needs to improve the service of the 24 hour news channels. The political reporters who service the BBC and Sky rolling news channels don't sit in the press gallery and therefore miss 'the Burma Road briefing' that print journalists receive as Downing Street staff walk through the Commons press gallery. Too often it's mid-morning before the people on rolling TV get a call and a guide to what's happening that day. The calls should be made more reliably and earlier. "The Downing Street team always seems to be in meetings," said one of my sources. Even Nick Robinson, the BBC's Political Editor and the most important political journalist in Britain, doesn't get a daily call. This was not the case under Labour.
  • Broadcast set-ups: Liz Sugg who runs events and forward planning for David Cameron won high praise. "She gets what we need, especially in terms of pictures" said one broadcaster. "The operation needs a Gobby, however." Gobby is the BBC guy who arranges all of Millbank's coverage of political events. He arranges the TV cameras and ensures the set ups are world class. Blair's Anji Hunter used to arrive early at events and bark orders to people - getting everyone in exactly the position she wanted.
  • Neglect of new media: Both the bloggers I spoke to get very little from 10 Downing Street. One hadn't had contact with Number 10 for five weeks. The other hadn't had contact for since October: "I'm in contact with journalists every day. Reporters read what I write but it's as if I don't exist in the mind of Downing Street and Tory HQ. The last thing I want is for this problem to be solved by establishing a "Social Media Unit". I want regular contact with the main team".
  • One commentator said there needed to be a greater understanding of the difference between necessary policies and reward policies: By necessary policies he meant deficit reduction and NHS reform. These were policies that Conservatives supported but didn't excite them. Reward policies were things like action against the European superstate, tough action on law and order and looking after injured servicemen. The Right, he said, wasn't happy because Downing Street was focused on necessary policies but not reward policies. [This is an important distinction but I don't like the phrasing].

This almost certainly reads as very negative. The Coulson operation also received a good deal of praise (of the kind blogged by Adam Boulton and even me) but I've focused on the things that need to improve.

> From Saturday: After Coulson, Downing Street should make four strategic shifts in communications strategy


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