‘Hello, this is BBC Radio Stoke, we’d like a quote about your local PPC!’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 16 – Avoid ‘Local Difficulty’!

Harold Macmillan coined the phrase, 'a little local difficulty' which it is always best to avoid!

As you will no doubt be aware there has been an issue with a Liberal Democrat PPC in Stoke-on-Trent recently.

This was brought home to me over the weekend when I received a ‘private number’ phone call. 

“Hello, is that John Ault?” came the siren voice.

“Yes,” I said.  

“We have you as the contact for the Liberal Democrats in the North West, we were wondering if you could give us a quote on the issues surrounding the Liberal Democrats in Stoke.”

I replied, “Unfortunately I would only be able to comment in a personal capacity on this subject.  I haven’t worked for the Liberal Democrats in that region for 10 years now so I don’t think I should comment. 

“It might also help to know that Stoke-on-Trent is not in the North West region, by the way!”

There was a momentary silence from the other end of the phone, “I think we should probably update our records.” 

“That might make sense,” I replied.

It is very important to remember in relation to the press that one’s capacity to say nothing is often an extremely useful skill and is often underrated.


Ebay rates my, and Hilary Stephenson’s, Magnum Opus at a value of £2.50 – but at least someone is still buying!

The Campaign Manual by Myself and Hilary Stephenson - a collector's item going for a song at £2.50!

One of the most interesting aspects of working for the Liberal Democrats is the training and advice that you are asked to give to other agents, candidates, MPs and local parties.

In 2000, having agented a successful general election campaign, a couple of parliamentary by-elections and helped run the European elections in 1999 I was asked, with Hilary Stephenson, to write and design the new version of ‘The Campaign Manual’.

It was to form the basis of a the party’s training programme in the run up to the 2001 election and was to be published by ALDC.

Now trust me this is not entirely vanity but on occasion I, and I know others, type their name into Google just to see what the world is saying about them and whether anything interesting has been said.  ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!’ I hear you cry.  But, admit it we all do.

Now, imagine my surprise when I did it the other day and discovered a link to ebay.  I was intrigued, possibly even worried, to discover what the auction website had for sale, and there it was – The Campaign Manual.

It is described as ‘Used’ which is more than I can say for many of them and it is also described as being in ‘Good Condition’.  I can’t quite decide what I think of the fact that is someone in Bath is selling it.  I suggest they keep it for the next few months just in case they need the secret recipe for making the perfect poster sticking solution.

I am of course delighted that it appears in ‘Non-Fiction’ and is rather generously described as being ‘Political Science’.  I always thought it was more of an art than a science but there you go.

I know you will all be excited about buying this magnum opus of myself and Hilary, it is a must for any serious political scientist’s bookshelf! Here’s the link and happy bidding.

You have until 16:48:49 this afternoon – Wednesday 27/01/10. 

The present price, selling, at £2.50 – what an absolute bargain.  Oh, and before you ask it isn’t me who has bid.  I still have a few copies somewhere.

‘I’m getting something over the radio about a naked man storming the stage during Charles’ speech!’ The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 15

Charles was about to surprised by a naked man storming the stage

Press conferences may have their ups and downs but public speeches can be even worse.  As I have said before Liberal Democrats and security are not easy bed fellows and the nearest most Lib Dem events get to ‘security’ is a quick look through a handbag by an enthusiastic volunteer.

Sometimes they are elderly members who worked at Bletchley Park, but they are increasingly rare.

One such event during the 2001 General Election was a regional rally at The Floral Hall in Southport.

Members from across the region converged to hear the leader, Charles Kennedy, speak. 

As the regional contact for the national party and the Special Branch a lot of the organisation came through me to arrange where Charles would arrive, who was allowed in and anybody that the Special Branch had identified as ‘a potential threat’!  It is very easy to assume that these sorts of descriptions are a bit police statish but nonetheless it was my responsibility to check that people were who they said they were and that they were allowed access if the police had any concerns about them. 

Once ‘Liberty’ was delivered by car to the back entrance of the meeting, and was safely delivered to the green room, it afforded the staff and police to have a chat and briefly check any photos or names against people to see if there were any known problems attending.

Over the radio of the policeman with me came a troubling message that someone was insisting on seeing Charles and a minor alert ensued to check the credentials of the person to see that they were bona fide and that this was not a problem.  There was no problem and the person, with police minder, was allowed to have a brief chat with Charles about a casework matter. 

As the event began I and a couple of other members of staff and one of the Special Branch officers sat down outside in a lovely spring evening for a cup of coffee and a chat about the next event which they would need to liaise over when Charles was next in the North West.

Through the crackle of the officer’s walkie talky came, ‘Is John there?’ The officer replied that I was. ‘Tell him that a naked man has stormed the stage and he may need to sort it out!’

After a moment of contemplation about this rude interruption I asked if the policeman had a helmet I could borrow. He did not.

A few minutes later several Lib Dem stewards had removed the gentleman from the hall and re-clothed him.  Charles dealt with it brilliantly saying, ‘that reminds me that I should never go naked into the conference chamber.’

I commented to the police officer, ‘what a lot of fuss over a little thing like that!’

‘How Long is a piece of string?’ The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 14 – You’d be amazed what you can have an argument about…

Make sure that the BBC can reach his van before planning a press conference

Press conferences are considered to be an essential part of any election campaign. I am not such a big fan, as many national media people are, mainly because they have the potential to go wrong without any apparent justification.

Sitting behind a table at the regional launch of an election campaign, surely nothing can go wrong.

With Manchester being the TV media hub for the North West one of the conference suites at Manchester airport was selected, by the national party, and with Tony Blair firing the starting gun for the election I was primed to organise the event the following day.

On cue at 7am myself and a number of TV engineers arrived at the main concourse of the airport awaiting the Charles Kennedy’s team, who would arrive by private plane from London and other journalists who would arrive later for the main event.

The conference suite was nice, if a little greige, and I set up the party back drop whilst the engineers plugged their cameras into their satellite vans outside the main concourse.

After about thirty minutes of discussion and heaving of equipment one engineer, from BBC News, who was planning to run a live feed sat down and made a phone call explaining that the kit he had brought would not do the job.

Another van was despatched from BBC Manchester and, having at least another hour before the press conference started, began to set up once again.

Our advanced team arrived, including Daisy Sampson, and ‘asked’ how things were progressing. I explained that we, the Liberal Democrats, were ready but that the BBC seemed to be having a slight issue. Having been given the rather curt response, ‘get it sorted!’ I duly went to the BBC team and asked what I could do to help.

He said, ‘next time you have press conferences please have them somewhere where we can get to.’

Receiving a bemused look he replied, ‘the problem is you have arranged your press conference 110 metres away from the closest point that we can park our satellite van, and as such our cable is approximately 10 metres too short for the job.  In fact we don’t have any cables that long so we are just going to have to record it and use it later. 

It is fair to say that the national team were not impressed with this information and after a show and tell exercise with myself and the BBC engineer, and much shouting from the said national representative I explained that she should get over it and try deal with the people who could cover it, namely those recording and those writing.  This did not go down well.

Nonetheless it is excellent advice from the BBC team.  The answer to the question, ‘how long is a piece of string,’ is ‘if it’s the BBC it’s 100 metres exactly.’