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Sunday, May 22, 2005

The art of letter writing

The Observer this morning reports on the extraordinary lengths that Labour went to so as to arrest the slide in their support around the Country. They tell of how party members and supporters were systematically used to create the impression of 'real people' passionately backing the government.

Model letters were drafted for them to 'write' to local papers, as if they had been spontaneously roused to complain about Michael Howard's tactics - while party staff were drafted in to represent 'local people' whom Tony Blair could meet on campaign visits. 'Spontaneous' demonstrations against rival politicians were also organised, with activists instructed to use handwritten homemade-looking placards.

The Channel 4 Dispatches reporter, Jenny Kleeman, worked in Labour's London regional press office in the run-up to the election, then in its Victoria Street national war room - before her services were abruptly dispensed with.

She was dispatched to a press conference addressed by Milburn to help 'fill out' the audience after embarrassingly few journalists turned up - and was filmed shaking hands with Tony Blair as an 'ordinary' person at a photocall. She also helped compile model letters for supporters to send to local papers, complaining that 'as someone who has worked for a number of years in the NHS', they found that Michael Howard's use of the case of pensioner Margaret Dixon - who had her shoulder operation repeatedly cancelled - had not 'accurately represented' the state of the health service. The letters later appeared virtually word for word in local newspapers, under the names of local party activists who did not declare their allegiances.

It seems that research has shown that more people trust the letters page of their local newspaper than any other page, a fact that Labour were keen to take advantage of. After this documentary, I think that they would be justified in not trusting anything that appears in their local paper ever again.

What is worrying about this programme is how it underlines the way that political parties seek to manipulate every piece of news that we receive, in whatever medium. Getting the message across has become a sophisticated 24 hour a day operation in which even trusted sources are subverted to the party line.
We will have to wait & see the programme I guess, but it hardly sounds like watergate to me!

Essentially it seems to be saying that Labour HQ ran a tight ship (witness the speed with which they rumbled the Despatches undercover reporter) and made use of pretty standard and longstanding (what is all this rubbish about 'astroturfing' in aid of ?!?).

As for people trusting the letters pages of their local rag more than any other section it would be worrying (think of the serial letter writers such as Ioan Richard or Jack Harris) if it weren't so risible. In practice the letters pages tend to be read in detail by only a small fraction of the readership of most local papers.
Sorry, end of 2nd para missed some words ...

"basic political campaigning techniques, which have been around since television became the primary medium for national political campaigns during the 1960's."
I don't disagree with anything you say David
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