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August 16, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:13am

The local angle: What regional journalists say about covering Truss and Sunak

By Bron Maher

What can journalists expect their relationship with the prime minister to be like under a Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak administration?

Hoping to get a sense of what reporters covering the next political era have in store, Press Gazette spoke to five local journalists who have interacted with the candidates and their teams.

We learned that both are typically perfectly pleasant to interact with – but one appears to be more accessible than the other.

We heard how one of the candidates juiced up their local communications team by hiring a former Newsquest editor to run it.

And we were told by three sources that during a recent visit to the Isle of Wight, one of the candidates came out as the reporters’ favourite.

[Read more: Truss vs Sunak – What are the Conservative leadership contenders’ plans for media?]

An East Anglian journalist’s take on Liz Truss

Press Gazette asked one journalist whose patch includes Liz Truss’ Norfolk constituency how she had been with local media.

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“To be honest, [with] a lot of MPs, there’s ups and downs and stuff, but she’s not as bad as some of them can be – just sort of turning the tap on and off.

“We have certainly noticed that when she wasn’t in cabinet roles, big roles, we would certainly get much easier access. You would be able to speak to her quite freely and regularly…

“That has certainly changed in the time that she’s [been] in the cabinet and definitely in the time that she’s been doing the [Foreign Secretary] role. And some of that you can understand because a lot of the time she’s not in the country.

“But some of that can be frustrating. We’ve done a lot of calling our MPs to task over the last year, as a lot of local media have, around stuff like Universal Credit and the Boris Johnson situation, where we’ll ring all of the MPs and say: ‘Look, what’s your take on it? What side of the fence are you on?’

“And I would say 99 times out of 100, Liz Truss is probably the MP that we don’t hear back from.”

The journalist suggested Truss had become as hard to pin down for their outlet as any other government minister would be.

“But when you do speak to her, she’s normally quite an open person, and certainly when you do manage to get hold of her, she’ll give us quotes and that sort of stuff. But often the challenge is just getting the time in the first place.”

They didn’t think she disliked the media, though – despite her run-in with Tom Newton Dunn last week in which she accused him and the media of “framing” questions “in a left-wing way” and talking “our country down”.

“There’s some people in the public sphere who, you know instantly, they do not like the media and they’re doing it because they have to do it,” the East Anglian journalist said.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve never got that impression with Liz. I think part of what has got her where she is is she’s got a very open personality and character. She comes across as quite a warm person – and whether that’s an act or not, I don’t know, that’s not for me to say. But I feel that her demeanour is that she sort of sees media as part of what she has to do.

“And I think from my impressions and the time I’ve spent with her she kind of enjoys it.”

A Yorkshire journalist’s take on Rishi Sunak

Joe Willis, editor of local independent news site Richmondshire Today in Sunak’s Richmond (Yorks) constituency, painted a picture of a different media strategy for Rishi Sunak.

“I met him when he first became an MP. Invited me over for a cuppa. Just chatting about local issues, what I thought were the concerns, what were the big stories, what I thought he could do to tackle issues.”

Willis added: “To be fair to him, he’s quite a friendly chap, very personable chap.”

The two even made provisional plans to organise a playdate for their children, although it didn’t end up happening.

“Press-wise, he’s interesting. He’s employed a former editor of the local weekly paper as his political press guy.

“Malcolm Warne was editor – quite a well-respected, established editor – for the Darlington and Stockton Times, the local Newsquest paper. And one of the first things [Sunak] did was take him on board.”

[Read more: Darlington and Stockton Times editor leaves after 23 years as role is phased out]

As a result, Willis said, Sunak has a very slick local media operation which he finds “quite useful”.

“His local constituency press is bang on really, because everywhere he goes, there’s a press release and a decent picture… Little bit of spin involved in it, but you just need to take that bit out.” 

Willis said Sunak was “quite visible in the constituency. He does pay quite a lot of attention to it. But again, he has a good team. He has a very well-staffed office, including his press guy and various caseworkers and things… He does the Friday events and pops up everywhere.”

He might even be too visible. “He has become a bit of a running joke, to be honest, certainly on my Facebook feed – he loves a photo call.”

Rishi Sunak’s trip to meet journalists on the Isle of Wight

Both candidates campaigned on the Isle of Wight earlier this month, but Sunak proved more accessible to local journalists.

According to one journalist on the island, the local Conservative Party passed their contact details on to the Sunak campaign team, whose press people then stayed in regular touch and explained the process.

A comms officer did ask for “a bit of a heads up on the questions,” the journalist said, to which they responded by outlining broad topics rather than specifics.

Ahead of the meeting, just before Sunak left Cowes on the boat back to Southampton, the journalist continued to be impressed by the regular contact “making sure I was there and aware of what was going to happen”.

The journalist was given a maximum of three questions lasting about five minutes but said the process was “completely open. They didn’t try to press us on what to ask and what not to ask at all. They just said there’d be time for pictures and stuff afterwards”.

They added: “Rishi’s team were great, really, from the offset, and they were speaking to us and liaising with us and making sure we knew what was going to happen, what time they would arrive. They were pretty much bang on time… So yeah, I’ve got no complaints. They were completely open and transparent the whole time, really.”

Alan Marriott, the editor of Newsquest’s Isle of Wight County Press, told Press Gazette he had a similar experience, with one of his reporters getting a sit-down with Sunak.

Liz Truss’ trip to the Isle of Wight

A third Isle of Wight journalist with whom Press Gazette spoke was less satisfied with their attempted encounters with Liz Truss in another story independently corroborated by Marriott. The pictures the IWCP managed to get can be seen on their site.

The journalist said there were “no active attempts that we’re aware of” from Truss’ team to get in touch in advance.

The newsroom learned that Truss would be making two stops on the island: one at a Conservative Association event that was closed to the media and the second at Wight Shipyard in Cowes, where the biggest Union Jack in the world can be found.

A source let the journalist know “that she was going to be there and you know, if we were going to be there then great, look, we could try and get some pictures.

“So we were just sort of in the area there where Liz was going to be coming in and then two or three of [Truss’] press team turned up.”

The journalist said they were told by one of the press team: “You can’t be in here, you’re going to have to go outside the gates.”

They said: “So I sort of looked at him quite puzzled and said, ‘Well, what do you mean? I’m here to cover the visit.’

The comms officer told the journalist they had “an agreement with somebody that she’s only going to do a photo in front of the big Union Jack flag” – echoing photos taken by both Margaret Thatcher and, when he was on his own 2019 leadership campaign, Boris Johnson.

“I said ‘look, I’m here to cover Liz Truss’ visit. We’ve been allowed in here, we’re on Wight Shipyard property, we’ve been welcomed in here. I need to get photos and videos, and ideally a question for Liz Truss, because it’s in the public interest. Potentially the future Prime Minister is on the Isle of Wight.’”

Told again to leave, the journalist told the comms officers: “I’m not going to take a photo and video of three blacked-out cars driving into the gates and I’m stood out here. That’s not going to happen.

“So I said ‘Look, what we’ll do is we’ll just say that Liz Truss refused to have her photos taken by the media or speak to the media or any videos at all. You know – she completely refused. That’s fine.’ I wasn’t funny about it, I just said that’s fine, just so you’re aware, that’s what I’m going to do.”

The press officers ultimately allowed the journalist to stay where they were. When Truss did turn up, the journalist told Press Gazette: “We’re probably still about 20 metres away, so it wasn’t like she’s right by us. So sort of managed to get a couple of pictures, but again, not great.”

The journalist said a campaign photographer “instructed [Truss] where to walk, and did her pose in front of the union flag” – while the reporters present were told “you can’t take pictures of this”.

The journalists were told the schedule was too tight to fit in any questions.

The reporter who spoke to Press Gazette said they were “disappointed… more than anything.”

“I’ve been doing this job for many, many, many years. I’ve covered many of the visits, royal visits, all sorts of things. I know how this works.”

They said they had wanted to pose simple questions: “How’s your visit been to the Isle of Wight? What’s your message for the Isle of Wight if you become Prime Minister?

“The ferries are a huge issue and the Island Deal… for extra funding is another issue. They’re the two issues that people ultimately want to know a lot about.

“And obviously she told that to Conservative members, but you know – that’s 150 people. We speak to thousands on a daily basis.”

Emphasising that they were “non-political,” the journalist said “I wanted to hear what she had to say. The public wanted to hear what she’d got to say.”

Neither Truss nor Sunak’s teams responded to Press Gazette’s requests for comment.

Pictures: Youtube screenshots (left and right)

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