Thursday, 6 October 2011

How the 'catflap' row unfolded

As I wearily made my way to bed on Monday night/Tuesday morning I tweeted "Oh dear, the Lobby journalists are very tired; expect mischief tomorrow". The Daily Telegraph party earlier in the evening was full of Lobby journalists who were over-refreshed and over-tired and frankly wanted a bit of fun. If there was a row to be found then they would find one. And so it came to pass.

Theresa May's speech - already well briefed and covered in the papers - was well received in the conference hall. I then made my way into a lunchtime fringe event where Ken Clarke was in conversation with Peter Oborne. Although Clarke was clearly not in agreement with May's criticism of the Human Rights Act he was careful to say that both points of view were "personal opinions". He then went on to say that he would wager that no-one was ever saved from extradition because of a cat.

Minutes later various Lobby correspondents began entering the fringe including one who sat next to me to ask what Ken had said. The journalist showed me a text from another Lobby correspondent saying Clarke had "just attacked May". This wasn't how I would have described the rambling discussion going on infront of me.

At the same time other journalists were questioning the cat example and a good old-fashioned row began to develop. This became viral very quickly as people passed around the news that Clarke had attacked May on Twitter. It soon had its own hashtags of #catflap and #catgate.

The Conservative press office issued a press release with the details of the court judgement citing the cat and special advisers were briefing journalists on the facts. Despite this, in absence of any other news, they found themselves swimming against the tide as the Lobby did what it does best and hunted as a pack. Only the Daily Mail, who wrote the original story cited by the Home Secretary, and The Sun, who hate Ken Clarke, weren't getting involved in the fun and games.

What role was played by Ken Clarke's team? I certainly saw Clarke's PPS Ben Wallace scampering out of the fringe to whisper conspiratorially into his mobile. Some May supporters were also seen to accuse the Clarke camp directly of sabotage while Clarke himself took time to talk at length to the BBC's Nick Robinson while puffing on a cigar. Now today we have more words from Clarke calling Theresa May's speech 'laughable' and 'childish' which makes the whole thing look less like a cock-up and more like a concerted effort to undermine the Home Secretary.

With or without direct involvement by Clarke's special adviser or PPS there are various reasons why the catgate row unfolded and so therefore lessons to be learned:

1. May's speech had been heavily trailed meaning no paper were going to cover it as a straight news story that day
2. The pre-briefing of the PM's speech wasn't due to happen for a number of hours
3. The Lobby were tired, bored and wanted to have some fun
4. All of the above points led to a vacuum developing which needed to be filled
5. The cat example used by May was seen to be a one source story by many journalists but for the more liberal of the Lobby using the Daily Mail as your only source is seen as criminal. The fact that the actual source was a court judgement was brushed aside in the clamour for a row

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