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May's misfiring media strategy is nothing new

Prime Minister's decision to shut out local reporters during factory visit brings a sense of déjà vu for local government correspondent Neil Elkes

Rick Findler/PA Wire Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement in Downing Street
Prime Minister Theresa May

The stories from the poor Cornwall reporters shut out of an election campaign visit by Theresa May earlier this week seemed eerily familiar.

The press team were invited to see the Prime Minister visit a local factory only to be told not to photograph her arriving, shut in a room while she went on a walkabout and then allowed a brief interview but not on camera.

They tweeted: "Having covered several high-profile politicians' and royal visits over the years, the level of media control here is far and above anything I've seen before.

"We're not even allowed to show you her visiting the building."

Even then, their questions about social care funding and other cuts were rebuffed with the robotic Tory party line about strong and stable leadership.

You get the impression, if they'd asked her favourite colour, they'd have got the same answer.

This is part of a creeping trend towards control of election events and visits to the point that politicians stick to a parrot like statements and the press are told what they can cover.

In 2015, it became apparent that more political visits took place on private property where you need permission to film or photograph and where you can avoid being harangued by a casual passer by.

Why risk being caught out by an opinionated member of the public as Gordon Brown was in 2010?

At these controlled events, crowds of party activists and bewildered factory staff are placed behind the speaker, often waving banners, as they speak.

Behind the cameras are vast cavernous spaces - a vacuum of interest.

In the past, this would not be widely reported but now online and social media, as the brilliant Cornwall Live blog showed, has given a platform for these behind the scenes views.

But the attempt to control is not new - here's a few personal brushes with the top politicians:

Gordon Brown (2008)

For the first time ever, the cabinet met outside Downing Street and chose Birmingham's ICC as the venue.

The Birmingham Mail was asked to find four readers to meet and ask questions of the then Prime Minister.

On arrival, they were ushered in but the reporter and photographer were barred from their meeting.

We were only allowed to interview the readers about their meeting after. Wish we hadn't bothered.

Later, I got one question with the PM but the answer was so banal and there was no opportunity allowed to press the point or follow up. Not doing that again.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown

David Cameron (2006)

Then the newly elected leader of the opposition, he delivered a speech in Balsall Heath followed by interviews with the local media.

Only trouble was his people wanted to control the agenda - a list of questions were ruled out (including what would an Old Etonian know about Birmingham housing estates) and eventually whole interviews were cut from the schedule.

An intrepid colleague from the Sunday Mercury managed to trap the Prime Minister in waiting in a doorway, jammed a tape recorder in his face and demanded answers.

Such a tactic can only work with shadow cabinet members - the real deal have bodyguards who would have flattened the reporter in question.

David Cameron (2015)

Following his election victory, he came to an empty Birmingham school during July to deliver a keynote speech on the war on extremism. The press were effectively kettled in a classroom for almost two hours before being ushered in for the speech.

We were not even allowed to mingle with the invited audience of local bigwigs and experts who may have had some useful insights. The speech was covered live on TV news channels anyway - wasted trip.

It was after that I decided to only do visits where we are guaranteed the chance to put questions for our readers and can expect not to get flat, repetitive sound bite answers.

David Cameron
David Cameron

Michael Gove (2016)

Never try to sneak out of an open-plan, glazed office - that's a lesson Mr Gove might have taken from a visit to Birmingham last year.

As our guest speaker at an EU Referendum event, we thought Mr Gove, then Justice Secretary, would be happy to spare five minutes to talk to the Birmingham Mail about our Birmingham Pub Bombings campaign - but, after initially agreeing to the request, his Vote Leave PR handlers had a change of heart.

Instead of telling the waiting reporter, they tried to sneak Mr Gove out a back way but were spotted scuttling away.

The reporter raced down in a lift and put the question to Mr Gove as he waited for his ministerial car.

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Graeme Brown
Editor (Agenda and Business)
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Neil Elkes
Local Government Correspondent
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