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A ridiculous world of controlling press officers and restrictions on the Eastleigh campaign trail
“HELP yourselves to the biscuits,” said one of the cheery staff who had clearly been put on ‘biscuit detail’ that day.
The assembled media politely nodded, but even the hastily bought custard creams had lost their appeal after an hour of waiting around in a, by now, overheated room.
Rammed with cameras, broadcast crews, iPads and the odd person with a notebook, the stage, and I do mean stage, was set for another ‘media opportunity’ on the by-election bandwagon, which was going to be graced by the Prime Minister himself.
However, the point of this photocall was the introduction of John O’Farrell, who had 12 hours earlier been put up as the Labour candidate to contest the seat.
He was neither local nor a mum of four, and had been on the TV a few times.
The media had been assembled to capture his debut performance on the campaign trail to a hostile audience – teenagers.
And there they were, these nonvoters, with their array of hairstyles equally as miffed they were being made to wait for the arrival of the candidate who would be accompanied by deputy leader of the Labour party Harriet Harman.
“Any idea when they might be arriving now?”
enquired one exasperated photographer as he braced himself for writing off another job that had been booked in for later that afternoon.
“Any minute now,” said someone with a clipboard. It was becoming a familiar reply and one that I was getting used to on my day of election coverage.
It ranked right up there with “I will see what I can do” (in other words, no chance) and “We will have the BBC first…”
These were the most common responses I was learning I would get from press officers of all parties as I sought to do the simple task of speaking to someone, take their picture and put it in the paper. Ironically for their own benefit.
That is what I have done day in and day out for about ten years with seemingly wild abandonment, but from now until February 28 I could expect to have my technical equipment, movements, and even my speech, it seemed, severely restricted.
I wondered if this was a window into the world of China.
It began earlier that day with the visit of George Osborne to a factory in Eastleigh.
Faring not quite as badly as Mr O’Farrell, he still managed to build in a good 45 minutes of unnecessary hanging about for staff and journos alike.
It did give the press officers the chance to check, check and double check, and we all understood the rules of engagement on this particular ‘big hitter’ visit.
One of them apparently mistook our staff photographer for a goldfish as he repeatedly impressed upon him that he could not move from the square foot of space he was in.
Not even an inch. OK? You’re not moving are you? What are you doing? Changing a lens... OK that’s fine. Don’t move though.
The reporters amongst us were divided up into categories and peeled off into different rooms by people with more clipboards, meaning I had the situation of phoning the photographer, who was still in his square foot, to ask him if he wanted a Danish pastry that had been helpfully provided.
“How about a cup of tea?” I yelled down the corridor to make the point.
It would all be worth it though as we were told we would have five to ten minutes with the main man.
Brilliant, I thought, an absolute golden opportunity to really quiz him about local issues in depth.
When the time came to ask a question of our Chancellor, the goalposts had moved significantly.
We were now down to two questions per reporter on the subject of the campaign only.
I flashed a look at the press officer who gave the original information and realised I should never have trusted anyone that wears blue loafers.
I was one question in when an entirely new press officer told me that was it. I pointed out to her that one and one made two and as yet I only had one in the bag.
I don’t know why I kicked up a fuss on hindsight, as he responded to neither of the questions with an actual answer, but what did I expect?
I still had the joys of a long wait for the Labour candidate that afternoon to come, which finished with a slight media scrum before encountering Mike Thornton, the Lib Dem candidate, who amusingly had booked a spot at the same college about an hour later.
Not wanting to feel left out, Diane James, the UKIP candidate, also popped up during the afternoon to mingle with the kids, and it struck me then that in this age of austerity the parties could just cut down on costs and employ one set of press officers to handle all of it.
My favourite moment of the whole campaign so far came however with the arrival of Mr Cameron.
Clearly the more important you are the fewer questions you can ask as we were down to one, and preferably given to a press officer in advance.
The officer of the press instructed: “National media at the front, local media on the small row at the back.”
Silly me, I thought this was a local byelection, but I took my seat and took out my phone to take a few snaps.
Oh no, I was told, that was simply not allowed. I cast a look around at the 800 staff who were all holding their phones aloft snapping away, before turning back to this new keeper of the freedom with an exasperated look.
“That’s just what I have been told,” she offered.