How to control the media to win a general election campaign

Andrew Eborn is a lawyer, strategic business adviser and producer. He has specialised in international licensing and global rights management for several years and has been actively involved with the global development of brands and the negotiation, acquisition and international exploitation of various major licences.

He is now working with several businesses across the IP value chain including the creation and licensing of content in all media from production, post production & Visual FX facilities to recording, publishing, distribution, supply of talent, technology, event & artist management, promotion and immersive technology.

Theresa May solemnly promised on several occasions not to call a general election until 2020 “to allow a period of stability”.

Politicians are, however, in the business of getting re-elected.

It is therefore not surprising that with polls suggesting the weakest opposition in living history a u-turn snap election proved too tempting.

Elections will dominate headlines throughout Europe in the next few months including in France, UK and Germany.

But will May fall in June?

Will Macron enjoy sweet success?

Will Angela Merkel seek a new occupation?

With tactics borrowed from Trump and others, from mastering the art of avoiding questions to locking the media in broom cupboards, here are seven simple steps to ensure victory:

Step 1: Manage the brand – call in the experts

Politics has always been a popularity contest. The key to maintaining any brand is control of the message.

We love to know everything about our politicians – their families, love lives, personal preferences. We snigger at their failings and love it when politicians hurl insults at each other, from the bear pit of Prime Minister's Question Time to name calling – mugwumps, dadiprats and gollumpuseses all.

The importance of spin doctors, strategists and brand experts has never been stronger. Having experts at your side throughout is essential.

Saatchi & Saatchi created the 1979 ad campaign – showing a long, snaking queue to the unemployment office with the headline 'Labour Isn't Working' – which saw Mrs Thatcher become prime minister. The agency went on to help secure three successive electoral victories for the Tories.

And where would Tony Blair have been without his director of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell?

This election sees the return of Sir Lynton Crosby – "master of the dark political arts" – who has been appointed to play a leading role running the Tory campaign. The 'Wizard of Oz' is widely regarded as the architect of David Cameron’s victory in the last general election. Crosby correctly predicted the outcome in spite of the polling companies. “It wasn’t just Ed Miliband’s Labour Party that revealed itself as out of touch and remote from the people who are the backbone of Britain," Crosby told the Telegraph. "It was a failure for the Westminster-centric ‘Eddie the Expert’ and ‘Clarrie the Commentator’ who were tested and found wanting. It was as much a judgement day for them as Ed Miliband and they lost.”

Step 2: Play the fear card

Fear is one of the most powerful motivators. It helped secure victory for Brexit and Donald Trump and has aided the rise of the far right.

The reasons cited for Theresa May’s u-turn in calling the snap election were carefully crafted – the prime minister played the fear card, pointing out that opposition parties were jeopardising her government’s preparations for Brexit.

“We need a general election and we need one now,” the PM warned. “I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion but now I have concluded it is the only way to guarantee certainty for the years ahead.”

In her statement, May pointed out:

“After the country voted to leave the EU, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership. Since I became prime minister the government has delivered precisely that ... The country is coming together but Westminster is not. Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach. The Lib Dems have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”

The threat is clear: if you don’t back Theresa May negotiations in Europe will fail and it will be your fault!

Step 3: adopt a catchy, generic slogan

As with all advertising a catchy slogan with sentiments which no one could dispute is key. The Labour party’s 1997 election campaign slogan “Britain Deserves Better” helped secure victory for Tony Blair. Similarly Trump’s “Make America Great Again” saw The Donald defy the pollsters.

May’s “strong and stable leadership” mantra is regurgitated ad nauseum when asked about everything from the scandal of food waste to Brexit to Tory tax policies. Asked if her catchphrases were "a bit robotic", she told the BBC: "No, it's, it's... when I talk about leadership and when I talk about the strength of the government for the future, I do it for a reason."

Step 4: limit debate

The Nixon-Kennedy debate on 26 September 1960 elevated John F. Kennedy from a relatively unknown senator from Massachusetts to a superstar. In comparison, Nixon seemed shifty, sickly and sweaty.

The underdog has everything to gain from a TV debate. Those with a clear lead have everything to lose.

In response to May’s refusal to take part in TV debates, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “Elections and democracy are about public debate. So it’s rather strange that only a couple of hours after calling for a general election, the prime minister is saying she’s not going to take part in TV debates.”

It is not strange at all. Rather, May’s refusal to participate in television debates is totally understandable. When you’re so far ahead in the opinion polls why take the risk?

Corbyn’s suggestion that he would not take part in a television debate during the general election campaign if May refuses to turn up must surely be a shot in his foot and has already sparked criticism on social media. If he does take part he can again be labelled as part of an anti-Tory “coalition of chaos” – further re-enforcing the fear attack lines. Either way May wins.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron suggested broadcasters have a moral duty to hold these debates with or without May: “The prime minister’s attempt to dodge scrutiny shows how she holds the public in contempt,” Farron said. “I expect the broadcasters to do the right thing; don’t let the Conservatives call the shots. If the prime minister won’t attend, empty chair her.”

On Corbyn, Farron points out: “Given he has been absent since the day he was elected as leader of the opposition, it is no surprise that he is choosing to be absent now. The broadcasters are going to have to dust off two empty chairs, the debates must go ahead.”

Step 5. Develop the art of avoiding the question

Skilled interviewers can destroy reputations. History is littered with victims – Frost extracting an apology from Nixon for Watergate. Paxman savaging Michael Howard, then the home secretary, in May 1997 regarding a meeting Howard had with Derek Lewis, head of the prison service about the possible dismissal of the governor of Parkhurst Prison, John Marriott. The presenter asks Howard the same question – "Did you threaten to overrule him?" – 12 times. A masterclass in persistence, resulting in a very uncomfortable stalemate.

Developing the art of avoiding the question is key and has given birth of a whole new business of self-professed experts – media trainers.

May has mastered the art of question-dodging and how to use lots of words but say absolutely nothing.

In spite of the persistence of Andrew Marr, May refused to say if she knew about a reported missile test misfire before the Commons Trident vote.

In his analysis of the techniques used in political interviews, Peter Bull, from the department of psychology at the University of York, identified 35 different techniques used to evade answers from “rephrasing the question,” to “attacking the question,” and even Margaret Thatcher’s favourite “attacking the interviewer.”

May is an expert in giving a “non-specific answer to a specific question.”

When asked whether she thinks Britain should have access to the single market, May told Marr: “Well what I want to see is the best possible deal for the United Kingdom in trade in goods and services.”

Would May prevent a second independence referendum happening in Scotland? “I don’t think it’s a question of whether there could be a second referendum, it’s whether there should be a second referendum.”

Just witness May's verbal somersaults in dealing with questions over Tory tax policies from ITV's Robert Peston.

Peston: "Given what you say your record as a party is on taxes, do you need to repeat David Cameron’s triple lock – no rise in VAT, no rise in National Insurance, no rise in income tax – do you need to repeat that?"

May: "Well, I’m clear that we have no plans to raise the level of tax."

Peston: "What does the level mean? I’m not sure what that means."

May: "In relation to specific taxes, we won’t be increasing VAT, but what I do want to ensure is that we are able to have the strong…"

Peston: "You definitely won’t raise VAT? That’s a 100% commitment."

May: "…But what I want to do is to ensure that when we do look more widely at the tax system, that what we say on the tax system, we’re absolutely clear we can deliver on it for people. And also as I say, I want to see us able to reduce taxes on working families and that can only be done with strong and stable leadership. It can only be done with a strong and stable government building that stronger economy."

Peston: "But it does sound to me like what really matters to you, apart from VAT, is the overall burden of taxation rather than micro managing at this stage, individual tax rates."

May: "I think it’s important that we look at that overall burden of taxation. As I say, my desire, my instinct, and what I absolutely want to do is to be able to reduce taxes on working families. But we are only able to do any of this if we can build that stronger economy, and that’s why it’s important to have that strong and stable government that can deliver on that strong economy. I think Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies are nonsensical, I think they just don’t add up."

Step 6: restrict the media

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind” – Jim Morrison.

Donald Trump is undoubtedly a master of media manipulation.

It is so much easier to only allow access to those outlets who are friendly to your cause and ban others. The White House has already barred several news organisations from off-camera press briefings. The BBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail and Politico have been among those excluded.

But don’t expect the media to go down without a fight.

A New York Times editorial pointed out: "That First Amendment can be inconvenient for anyone longing for power without scrutiny. Mr. Trump might want to brush up on what it means, and get used to it."

The LA Times said: "If the intent was to intimidate reporters into writing fewer things that the administration does not like, and more things that it does, it is doomed to failure."

May appears to be following The Donald’s lead. Her campaign has been hounded with rows about restricted media access.

She has been accused of "hiding" from voters including in Aberdeenshire, where locals discovered her visit at Crathes village hall had been listed as a child's birthday party.

Reporters from regional website Cornwall Live, part of Trinity Mirror, complained they were locked in a room to stop them filming. They had been sent to cover the PM’s visit to a diving equipment factory in Helston, in the marginal seat of St Ives.

On the live blog, reporters shared updates on the press restrictions they faced.

One posting included a picture of the door to the room in which they were kept

“The prime minister is behind this door – but we can’t show you. Her press team has said print journalists are not allowed to see her visiting the company.

“Having covered several high-profile politicians’ and royal visits over the years, the level of media control here is far and above anything I’ve seen before. We’re not even allowed to show you her visiting the building.

“Here is another example of the tight media control over the visit: all journalists are only allowed two questions for Mrs May, and we are not allowed to film her answering our questions.

A Conservative party spokesman explained: “One media organisation’s last minute request to add a camera to a pre-arranged pool of broadcast cameras was not possible this morning.

“Theresa May has so far taken four times as many questions from journalists as floundering Jeremy Corbyn while his cabinet can’t even answer basic questions about how they would pay for his nonsensical policies.”

Step 7 …and if all else fails blame the media

Follow these simple steps and election success is guaranteed.

Failing which, take The Donald’s lead. Any view which is contrary to your own can be dismissed as "fake news”, setting the stage for your spin doctors to peddle the "alternative facts".

Blame that “enemy of the people”, the corrupt press, pointing out that you now realise how dishonest the media is…. and if all else fails get Warren Beatty to announce the results

Final thought

What is shockingly clear is that at every election the biggest winner is apathy. In the last election, non-voters outnumbered the supporters for the winning party in more than half of UK constituencies. Non-voters would play a pivotal role in the general election if they were to use their vote.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: "Despite our flawed voting system, it's vital that everyone gets out there and uses their hard-fought right to vote. Voting does make a difference, and wherever people are they should have their say. The point is to make the voice of voters even stronger.”

We need to restore trust in politicians and to bother about the issues – climate change, food waste, housing, caring for an increasingly ageing population, health and education for all, security as well as our position on the global stage after Brexit.

Focusing on the real issues whilst being aware of the tactics being deployed to manipulate the media is a start.

Whatever your views, we should encourage everyone to question everything and to vote.

Register by 22 May to vote in the general election on 8 June.

...and in other news...

Andrew.Eborn@OctopusTV.com@OctopusTV@AndrewEborn

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