The original spin

Journalists are being spun big style; they cover Cameron as though he were PM-elect

Accustomed though I am to occasional populism, I found myself squirming away from the TV when David Cameron came on to announce his post-summer holiday Big Idea: lower salaries and more expensive chips for MPs.

It was not just the piddling nature of the proposals, which even Cameron called a "pinprick". More striking was the full-scale bells-and-whistles media operation, complete with BBC cameras popping in to watch him clear away the cereal boxes and urge his wife to "trust me" as he kissed her goodbye.

A former spin doctor, Cameron will have been happy with the outcome. Leading BBC bulletins, not bad print coverage, a bit sniffy in places, but hey, all things considered . . .All things considered, it was just the latest evidence of media double standards towards the two main party leaders. For Gordon Brown, any excuse for any abuse will do. For Cameron, "easy ride" does not begin to describe it.

Pot, kettle, black, say some, given my own involvement in the odd successful media hit. But - book plug essential here, I'm afraid - read my diaries. Every day in opposition was hard. And every day, the demands, expectations and intensity of scrutiny by the media were greater than anything Cameron has had to endure. His Bullingdon Club antics? Evidence not of elitism, privilege and weird values, but a sign that the public (as defined by the press) is ready to be ruled by toffs again. Drugs? He's decided not to answer, so let's stop asking. Expenses? Let's cover the tough noises he makes about others, and park his own taxpayer-funded mortgage.

As for policy, why should we press him to spell it all out? Doesn't it just show how clever he is not to open himself to scrutiny? Let's not worry too much about what might have happened had Britain adopted his do-nothing approach to the global financial crisis. Take as read his desire to help middle-income families, and don't tell anyone he wants to remove tax credits that might help them. Keep trotting out the pictures of him leading the huskies in the Arctic and overlook Tory councils turning down application after application for "bird blenders", as Cameron calls windfarms. As for Europe, OK, he might have got into bed with a bunch of racists, homophobes, climate-change deniers and extremists, but that won't damage Britain's influence in Europe . . . er, will it?

The Tories like to say they model much of their strategy on what Tony Blair did to modernise the Labour Party. But while words, branding and photo ops were important for us, the hard yards were won not by PR puffery, but by difficult policy decisions that showed the public we had got the message of successive defeats, and had changed.

Ask Tories how Cameron has changed the party and they tend to say he's got them ahead in the polls. Fair enough. Ask journalists and they will happily regurgitate the line from Central Office about detoxifying the brand. Ask a member of the public what, if any, policy proposals have been made to indicate change, and they could be forgiven for knowing of none. I don't mean not many. I mean none.

Scratch beneath the poll headlines a little, and Cameron's main problem with the public remains lack of substance. His strategy seems to compound that, yet still the analysis by the media remains soft.

Try to imagine what the media would have done to Neil Kinnock's Labour Party if it had been unable to say what it intended to do on tax, or how much it intended to spend on which public services. Imagine a Kinnock-led party with a European policy seen as misguided by virtually every major power in the world. Imagine a Kinnock-led Labour Party whose shadow cabinet was as unknown as the current Tory one.

This is not a call on the media to be anti-Tory in the way the press was virulently anti-Labour then. But it is an attempt to ask why so many journalists appear to have suspended the kind of critical analysis normally applied to the opposition.

General support from papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, given their avowed right-wing position and hatred of New Labour, is at least explicable. For the Murdoch stable, not only is there the usual pragmatic analysis of who it thinks might win, but its world-view tends to veer to the right. Much odder is the way parts of the left-wing press have fallen under Cameron's spell, buying the line that he has progressive goals, when speech after speech - once you get past the cutesy headline - and Commons vote after Commons vote exposes the opposite. Even more striking is the way broadcasters cover him as though he were PM-elect, not an opposition leader whose words and actions should be approached with at least the same level of scepticism and inquiry as the government's are.

This is not just about the media. Labour also needs to do a far better job of getting after him. It is not simply what happens at PMQs that matters, hugely important though those exchanges are in setting the strategic lines for the election. He and his colleagues have to start feeling pressure from every level of the Labour Party. That task would be easier if MPs with an eye on future leadership contests rather than the general elections stopped spreading the message that nothing has been achieved, that the country hasn't changed, that in effect we have failed. It helps nobody but Cameron. And it's not true.

People say they don't like negative campaigning. But there are three planks to any campaign: setting out a forward agenda, defending the record, and attacking your opponents. All are essential. All have to be done with verve and vigour. And on all three, Labour has the makings of a strong position. So, as Andrew Rawnsley has written, if the media won't do their job properly (I paraphrase here), Labour needs to be even better at carrying out those tasks. Policy. Defence. Attack.

Journalists, particularly after so-called Labour spin, like to pride themselves on their refusal to be spun. They are being spun big style; what they write is informed by their view that Cameron has won. Anything that points in that direction is news. Anything that doesn't, isn't. If he does win, he will do so as the most underexamined, under-scrutinised, untested and policy-lite leader in history, aided and abetted by an army of willing self-spinners dotted around the papers and the broadcast stations, who by their indifference to genuine scrutiny help him every day.

Alastair Campbell guest-edited our issue of 23 March. You can read it here

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken