A former PR chief for David Cameron’s government believes telling the public “how the news is made” can help improve confidence in Westminster.
Giles Cunningham, former Conservative Party Communications Director and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister between May 2015 and July 2016, is one of the co-hosts of the Hacks and Flaks podcast. Hosted by journalist Petrie Hosken, the show also features GB News’ Mick Booker and Andrew McDougall, who works with Cunningham at their PR consultancy Trafalgar Strategy.
Cunningham told the Press Gazette he wanted to help the public understand how “the sausage is made.” He said he hopes to emulate some of the success of All Or Nothing, a behind-the-scenes sports series created by Amazon Prime.
The Hacks and Flaks podcast has so far published episodes on super-bans, royal scandals, fake news and the art of the political interview.
The end of the “got it” interviews.
Cunningham, who worked as a producer for ITN before joining the Tory party in 2006, said one of the big changes he had seen in political journalism during his career was the demise of the ‘gotcha’ interview, which was covered by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and John Humphreys on Today. One reason, he says, is that people in his profession have adapted.
“Politicians and PR people can predict 95% of the questions that come,” he said. “So if you’re trying to elect someone, they can be media trained to within an inch of their life. You’ll actually get a lot more out of people by letting them open up.”
Cunningham said he was a fan of “open, probing David Frost-style interviews where people will let their guard down or talk too much.” He added: “This is a classic Today interview, you can predict a lot of what’s going on. And obviously, the more you interrupt, the more people raise their guard, the more people at home tune out. And you don’t really come out any the wiser.”
He said personal revelations for politicians – such as Theresa May’s revelation in 2017 that the naughtiest thing she had ever done was run through a field of wheat – were important because they “go to the heart of someone’s character “.
Cunningham also said he believes consumers are fed up with “soundbites” and are now asking for interviews to explore: “Who is this person? What do they mean? What comes to their heart?’
He listed the best political interviewers at the moment as Andrew Neil, Alistair Stewart, BBC Radio’s 4pm Evan Davies and Christopher Hope, soon to leave The Telegraph for GB News (where Stewart also now works).
Downsizing of lobbying teams and fewer political scandals
Asked how political journalism as a whole has changed over the past two decades, Cunningham noted that news operations have smaller teams and are able to uncover fewer scandals.
“When I started, lobbying teams were bigger and had more people covering things, so they could take longer to do things, they could dig into things, they could hold people accountable,” he said. “Whereas now you have smaller teams that have to submit multiple stories on multiple platforms throughout the day, and that puts a lot more pressure on them.”
He said, for example, that the Tory party conference had in the past been a nervous time for his team “when you were worried about a big scandal breaking out because it was the perfect storm: you had all the journalists in a small place, politicians who didn’t can get away from the journalists, probably multiple sources for the journalists in one place”. But now, he said, there hasn’t been “a major political scandal erupted at a conference in a long time.”
Asked if it made life easier for people in his line of work, Cunningham said: “I think potentially, yes.”
2024: The Tiktok Election
Cunningham noted that mistrust has also been aided by the rise of social media platforms, which give politicians their own platform to communicate with millions of voters.
“I suspect the next election will be the Tiktok election,” Cunningham said, looking ahead to 2024.
“Before that be: I have to play my message on Radio 4; I have to get my message across in the FT,” he said. “Whereas now you can get the message out on your own platform, right?
“So you can post your message on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tiktok. You have this option in your back pocket. And you can argue, probably knowing that the Prime Minister already has a platform, that you really have a platform where you can still reach the same amount, if not more people.
He added: “It will be interesting to see if Number 10 chooses to do more of that in the run-up to the election where they say: OK, we’ll put stories online first because we’ll get them out on our terms and our way and I’m sure , that if I were there, I would do that sometimes…
“Especially with things that have a lot of different nuances, it’s quite sensitive and you say, look, I want to have 15 minutes to explain what I’m not going to have with a broadcast interview.”
As for how the next election will go, Cunningham, who helped steer the Tories to a majority in 2015, doesn’t believe Keir Starmer’s Labor stands as much of a chance of victory as many think.
“For the altar, [so far] it’s about the need to reassure people and gain trust,” he said. “I think for Starmer he didn’t really have to do too much, did he? But I think it’s a high-risk strategy for them to stay away. And it can work if you don’t do too much and let the tors break down.
“But I think you have to have something — you have to have a call to action that evokes emotion and people have to be sold on a vision for the future.”
Quickfire Questions with Giles Kenningham
Do you have a favorite newspaper? “No.”
Why not? “They each have different things that I like.”
magazine? The Economist and GQ.
Podcast (excluding Hacks and Flaks)? Politico’s Westminster Insider.
A newsletter? Scott Galloway’s No Mercy/No Malice.
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