What was David Cameron up to yesterday? Barking orders about flood control from an underground bunker? Splashing around Datchet in waist-high waders? Seizing control of COBRA? He may have done all of these things, but presumably not in the morning – because he was elsewhere, on a visit that had nothing to do with flooding. The Birmingham Post’s website displays a story that went up at 13.53 yesterday. As I write, it is one of the most prominent items on it, occupying the top left-hand corner of the site well over twelve hours after publication: the casual reader can scarcely miss it.
“David Cameron hails Jaguar Land Rover as a ‘great British success story’,” proclaims the headline. Below it, a sub-heading reports: ‘Prime Minister visits new JLR engine plant near Wolverhampton, which will create 1,500 new jobs’. The report is taken up almost entirely by the Prime Minister’s words, as he praises JLR’s workers, its job creation record, and a British success story. “In the past we saw too much jobs growth in the south east,” he says, “and here we are in the heartland of the West Midands and the heartland of manufacturing.”
Indeed, 13 consecutive paragraphs consist of direct quotation of his words. Labour doesn’t get a look in. There is no criticism of the Government, no briefing off the record, no Westminster process story – just straightforward reporting. This is not peculiar to the Birmingham Post: any regional or local paper would have reported Cameron’s visit in much the same way, and they are. Without anyone much in the Westminster Village noticing, such in-and-out regional visits by the Prime Minister and George Osborne are becoming more and more commonplace as the next election approaches.
Britain’s national newspaper pack is based in London, and so are many of the bigger political blogs (including this one, at least most of the time). And it either hasn’t clocked or prefers to ignore the way in which Number 10 is now trying to work round it as much as possible. Very simply, Downing Street believes the regional media is more likely to report rather than interpret what it says, that trust in regional and local media outlets is higher than national ones, and that Cameron will get a bigger bang for his buck by delivering his message outside the capital than in it.
Lynton Crosby, in particular, has a low view of much of the London-based commentariat, and will be encouraging the Prime Minister to get out and about. (Furthermore, Number 10 has little regard for print as a whole, believing that TV and radio usually have bigger reach.) The gambit of seeking to by-pass what Tony Blair called “the feral beast” may not work for Cameron, in the sense of delivering him a second term in Downing Street. But it is happening and is easy to miss – which is why it may be worth flagging up.