The digital age isn’t a good time to be a gaffe-prone functionary in the Downing Street press office. In pre-internet times, if some slightly naff press release went out, the chances were that only the crusty old hacks in the lobby would see it. These days, though, any tweet or Facebook announcement by Number 10 goes out to an entire army of wags just waiting to take the p–––.
Hence the storm of mirth over the picture released by Downing Steet of David Cameron talking to President Obama about the Ukraine crisis. It was tweeted out yesterday in a bid to show the PM’s firm grasp on world affairs, with a poker-faced Mr Cameron talking on his hotline to the Oval Office.
Instead it’s been taken about as seriously as a Cameron “selfie” with the caption “LoL – I’m talking to the Leader of the Free World!”
Already it’s spawned numerous spoof versions, with even the Cooperative Party (the bunch whose bank was run by that crack-smoking vicar) getting in on the act. Their general secretary, Karin Christiansen is pictured on the phone here – not ordering up more crystal meth, but pretending to talk to Mr Cameron about Fair Trade fortnight.
Even Mr Cameron seems to have seen the funny side of it now – as I write, he’s just Tweeted a jokey reply to the Star Trek actor Sir Patrick Stewart, who was among the many celebrities who also put up mock pictures.
But entertaining though it is, I personally find all this teasing unjustified. For it was a picture of a serious-looking bloke on a telephone that made me the man I am today. Back in the early 1980s, when I was but a nipper, I used to turn on the TV news and watch swashbuckling foreign correspondents like Martin Bell and Brian Barron reporting from warzones like Beirut or Angola. Often, when they hadn’t been able to send footage through, you wouldn’t actually watch them at all but listen to them talking over a crackly phone line. So to make up for the lack of visuals, the studio would have a picture of them with some big Bakelite handset glued to their ear, looking suitably grizzled and serious.
It’s all so long ago now that I can’t even find any screen-grabs on the internet to demonstrate what I’m talking about. But take it from me – it all looked rather glamorous. And 30 years later, as a foreign correspondent for the Telegraph, I like to think I’m the same line of work.
Nonetheless, like most journalists, I do still spend quite a lot of time behind a desk. And the fact is that no office job – be it prime minister, hack or otherwise – lends itself to very exciting photo ops. We work at computer terminals and, er, we talk on phones. That is about it, other than the odd bout of photocopying and the occasional trip to Starbucks. This is even true for big journalistic coups like the Watergate scandal. Yes, some of the work that unseated President Nixon was done through shadowy meetings with contacts like Deep Throat in multi-storey carparks. But a lot of it was done on the telephone.
So I can’t really see what David Cameron’s critics expect him to do by way of racier photo-ops. Short of releasing West Wing style footage of him striding purposefully down various corridors, barking orders to minions, even life in Downing Street is not going to seem that much different to life in David Brent’s HQ in Slough.
Yes, Mr Cameron could pose half naked on a horse like Vladimir Putin, or fire guns from a balcony like Saddam Hussein. But I don’t really think that’s his style. And anyway, it could have been worse. “Mr Cameron sends an email to his opposite number, President Barack Obama” would have been an even duller photo.
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