Wednesday 2 February 2011

Image-conscious Cameron puts broadcast first

David Cameron has appointed Craig Oliver as his new director of communications, following the resignation of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.

The appointment suggests a belief that broadcast news is going to be more important than the newspapers in the decisive political issue of whether the government can persuade the public over its spending cuts and economic strategy.

Cameron may even be nostalgic for his early successes in his first year as leader of the opposition, when it was the counter-intuitive photo opportunities that got Cameron a hearing for his argument that the Conservatives had changed, though it can be questioned as to how far he capitalised on this in the years which followed..

It may be tougher now. You can oppose in images, but you must govern in prose, as Mario Cuomo almost said.

The career move will surely mildly confuse some on the BBC-bashing right to find that the former editor of the main news bulletins and the election night programming is now keen to use his professional skills to serve this Tory-led government.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson offers some background on the senior BBC Executive who now moves to communicating Downing Street's priorities.

Craig is someone I have worked closely with at both the BBC and ITV. He masterminded the BBC's 2010 general election results programme after several years editing both the BBC News at Six and News at 10. Five years earlier he had been at the helm for ITV News's 2005 General Election coverage. A former ITN trainee he edited ITV's early evening news after working for both Channel Four and Five News.

I am one of those shocked and yet not altogether surprised by Craig Oliver's switch from being poacher to becoming gamekeeper. Hard though this may be to believe I had no inkling of his political views in all the years I worked with him. What I do remember is how interested and intrigued he was by David Cameron's early efforts to re-shape the Conservative Party. Whilst others were scathing about that trip with the huskies or the "hug a hoodie" speech Craig thought they mattered as more than mere spin.

It remains to be seen as to whether there is a broader shift in government communications. ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie recently blogged incisively about three different communications challenges in modern politics - in broadcast, print and campaigning - which may well require different skill-sets and individuals.

Yet the fundamental issue is that communications depend on the priorities and message being communicated.

After the Coulson-Hilton balancing act helped to define the politics as well as the communications strategy of number ten, there is pressure from the right to restore the balance, and from the centre to offer a clearer Cameron position. So Steve Hilton was keen to have a strongly Cameronite appointment, being widely reported to be promoting the cause of Ian Birrell as the early frontrunner.

The new appointment does not offer many clues about political direction, as to whether Cameron accepts his remaining adviser's concerns about the impact of diluting Cameroonian centrism in the interests of party unity.

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