Yesterday, on Radio 4’s The Today Programme, Ken Livingstone told James Naughtie that the media were to blame for his defeat in the London mayoral election. He muttered something about smear campaigns, reckoned the press were overwhelmingly on the side of Boris in the personality contest and had given him ‘an easy ride’ during his four years in office. But Ken seemed particularly irked that the BBC had decided a Question Time debate between the contestants wasn’t needed.
So why did this matter so much? Ken’s supporters were frustrated that while he seemed to have the more credible policies, he couldn’t get that across in the media, accusing journalists of casting aside the big issues in favour of personality ones. He knew he’d lost the battle for airtime and couldn’t get his message across.
So what is it that Boris has got right? David Hill in his London Blog for The Guardian calls him a ‘celebrity Tory’. Surprisingly to some, and unlike many of his Conservative colleagues, Boris seems to have popular appeal – and, rarely seen without his bike, may be more in tune with what the big ‘picture’ needs to look like than his opponents give him credit for.
A journalist by trade, the former editor of The Spectator keeps his hand in with his column in The Daily Telegraph and uses it to air issues that he thinks matter to people – foreign workers, wasteful public spending and, of course, tax avoidance.
It was this issue that many former Ken supporters blamed for their disillusion. They agreed with his policies but no longer trusted him to deliver them.
For some, credibility of the candidate rather than the policies was the deciding factor. Or if you wanted to spin it the other way, the media had reduced the debate to a personality contest.
Either way, the consensus is that the media are as powerful as ever in determining success, and carving the right relationship with the press is key. With the margins of success becoming closer than ever, every column inch and broadcast second really does count – and perhaps more than ever before, style and substance need to go hand in hand.