New weapon in spin wars
An Australian journalist with little experience of party politics is the latest weapon to be deployed by the opposition British Conservative Party in a bid to boost its flagging reputation.
With upcoming regional and local polls, the party that was decimated in the May 1997 elections is searching for a new formula which will help to save it from further ignominy.
In modern British politics media managers often wield more power than even senior elected representatives and Conservative leader William Hague has moved to try to find a new way of presenting his policies to the people.
Amanda Platell, 42, has worked in England for the past 15 years after leaving her native West Australia where she cut her teeth working on the Perth Daily News.
Although she has never been a member of the Conservative Party and was believed to have been sympathetic to Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party, she has signed up with Mr Hague for a new high-profile role as his personal spin doctor.
Many are sceptical that she has the necessary understanding of the Westminster village to turn around the party's fortunes and to persuade editors to take Mr Hague seriously.
Her journalistic career has not been news-orientated but she has worked in a succession of executive roles in British papers, most recently as the acting editor of the Sunday Express a flagging middle-brow tabloid.
Her departure from that job is an indication of the Labour Party's success in managing the media and in keeping editors from delving into the murky personal dealings of senior government officials.
Ms Platell lost her job in January after publishing a report about former Secretary for Trade and Industry Peter Mandelson's alleged friendship with a male Brazilian student. The story came shortly after questions were raised about the former cabinet minister's alleged homosexuality and it was claimed that he exerted pressure on the paper's chief executive to remove her as editor.
But her appointment is seen as an indication the Tories are getting ready to take a serious media initiative and try to get the party's views put over not just in the mainstream newspapers but across the spectrum of media including magazines and the local press.
The new member of Mr Hague's kitchen cabinet will be going head to head with Labour's Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's own spin doctor believed by many to be the second most powerful man in the country.
The 39-year-old Scotsman is said to be the only person who has immediate access to the prime minister and is able to stroll into his office when he pleases while cabinet ministers can wait days for an appointment at 10 Downing Street.
His confrontational manner with the press has earned him a fearful reputation and many elected politicians are envious of the influence he has and his apparent role in helping to set the party's agenda.
Mr Campbell's tactics in side-stepping the main Fleet Street papers to try to put the Government's message across have also caused indignation among senior political journalists but seem to be succeeding in maintaining the prime minister's popularity.
Earlier this year Mr Campbell began rethinking his communication strategy after mainstream newspapers ignored the latest employment figures that showed the Government was beginning to reduce youth unemployment.
The lack of coverage underlined to frustrated officials in Downing Street the difficulty in putting across policy progress in an area where the opposition is lacking in initiatives and led Mr Campbell to try a new strategy in news management.
Political correspondents from 35 regional newspapers, not normally troubled by invitations to briefings by senior government figures, were invited to the premier's official residence to be lectured by Mr Blair on the success of his policies.
As part of the package masterminded by Mr Campbell, the prime minister sent each paper an article written by him outlining the Government's success in finding jobs for youngsters.
Each article was identical except for the name of the area and statistics detailing how many local youngsters had found work thanks to Mr Blair's policies.
The strategy was considered a spectacular success with 29 papers using the material mostly swallowing the official line and lavishing praise on the premier for reducing unemployment in their area.
London-based foreign correspondents who normally find it difficult to get Downing Street press officers to even return phone calls were also invited to a briefing by a cabinet minister. Mr Campbell explained to the correspondents he hoped their reports would seep back to British voters. The prime minister's press office followed the briefing up by indicating that if favourable coverage was provided then further briefings might be provided.
Despite the success of the new strategy, the Government has been unable to ignore the traditional political commentators at the mainstream newspapers and broadcasters some of whom have not provided the backing Mr Blair had hoped for during the present Balkan conflict. Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence officials are said to be furious at what they regard as an excessively sceptical tone adopted by the BBC over the war in Yugoslavia.
Day-by-day questioning over the lack of immediate success in bringing an end to the conflict led the Defence Secretary George Robertson to complain that Britain would never have been able to win World War II if journalists had adopted a similar approach some 50 years ago.
But for the moment, Mr Campbell's strategy is largely regarded as succeeding in putting across the Government's policies without them being obscured by too much press criticism.
The job the Conservatives now face is in finding a similar cunning plan which will persuade voters in May's elections that there is an alternative to the present Labour Party domination of British politics.
BY: Simon Macklin