Leader: Lights, camera, reaction: Brown and the TV debates

With the press more hostile to Labour than at any time since 1992, the leaders' debates are an oppor

Weeks before he stood down as prime minister in the summer of 2007, Tony Blair addressed a gathering at the Reuters news agency on a subject close to his heart and that of his audience. The media, he said, were like a "feral beast", hunting in packs for "fear of missing out" on the big stories. Mr Blair didn't know the half of it. The former PM may have suffered a mauling from the beast over his handling of the Iraq war and itsaftermath, but when it really mattered - in the run-up to the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections - the media (and the press in particular) were largely benign. Not any more.

As his successor prepares to call another election, he will be doing so without the support of the country's most widely read newspaper, the News of the World, having lost the backing of its most popular daily, the Sun, last September. (The Sun has adopted an increasingly shrill and partisan tone in the intervening months.) Meanwhile, the Financial Times - a crucial supporter of Labour through the 1990s and even of Neil Kinnock at the 1992 election - is wavering.

So, Labour goes into the 2010 election campaign facing a press more hostile than at any time since 1992, when the Sun urged, in the event of a Kinnock victory, "Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights." As it turned out, and partly because of that hostility, no one needed to flick the switch. Today, Mr Brown must prove he can win - or at least stop David Cameron's Tories from gaining an overall majority - without the Fourth Estate.

What should Labour do? It is tempting to say that in this digital age it can bypass the traditional media and talk straight to the voter. Tempting but wrong.

Despite the growing role of new media as a conduit for political conversation, most people will get most of their election news mediated through the usual channels - television and newspapers. Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere are a useful, increasingly essential, means of talking to the base (energising volunteers and activating the activists), but they are far less potent when it comes to reaching out to and persuading floating voters.

The press remains the agenda-setter. Its choice of stories and the positions it takes influence the broadcasters, whose editorial meetings, prospect lists and, ultimately, running orders are invariably shaped by what was in that morning's newspapers. "Every morning the papers give their publics the conversations of the day," the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde wrote over 100 years ago.

Given the landscape, much may depend on how Mr Brown performs in the forthcoming televised leaders' debates - four and a half hours of prime-time exposure running across three consecutive Thursdays starting on 15 April.

It is his chance to talk directly to the electorate: he must empathise, offer practical solutions to the ongoing financial crisis and, yes, remind the voters of Labour's progressive achievements over the past 13 years. What he must avoid is the notorious "rat-a-tat-tat" delivery of his days as chancellor. A barrage of statistics will not play well to the electorate at large.

As the pollster Peter Kellner notes on page 18, the PM's personal ratings lag significantly behind those of Mr Cameron. The gap between the two has halved since last summer, but it is still far too wide if Labour's aim is victory. Mr Brown must hope, too, that the debates attract a sizeable audience. Channel 4's Ask the Chancellors debate on 29 March drew 1.8 million viewers, a respectable number for the UK's fourth terrestrial channel. More will tune in to the leaders' debates. Mr Brown must seize his moment.