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Does the media matter in Suffolk's 2019 General Election campaign?

PUBLISHED: 05:30 14 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:17 14 November 2019

We had full access during Priti Patel's visit to Ipswich on Monday when she met community leaders in the Gainsborough area. Left to right: Sally Kendall, Debbie Dunne, Neville Aitkens, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Helen Forbes,Catherine Head, Terry Charles, and Conservative candidate Tom Hunt.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

We had full access during Priti Patel's visit to Ipswich on Monday when she met community leaders in the Gainsborough area. Left to right: Sally Kendall, Debbie Dunne, Neville Aitkens, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Helen Forbes,Catherine Head, Terry Charles, and Conservative candidate Tom Hunt. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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General elections are nothing if they not major media events - and the way the parties are playing news organisations has always been a feature of how democracy works in this country.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson met puils as they carved pumpkins at Abbots Green Primary Academy in Bury St Edmunds. But why didn't his team make more of the school's expansion work?  Picture: PA IMAGESPrime Minister Boris Johnson met puils as they carved pumpkins at Abbots Green Primary Academy in Bury St Edmunds. But why didn't his team make more of the school's expansion work? Picture: PA IMAGES

This year's poll is no different - and although the campaign is still in its infancy, I do feel as if the media manipulation is already becoming a talking point.

There was one incident when I felt disadvantaged by media control - but then this week I really benefitted from politicians giving me access to a news story.

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson came to Bury St Edmunds on Day One of the election campaign, I was one of four local journalists invited to meet him at the school he was visiting.

To be honest this entire visit was so contrived, so tightly managed by three special advisors (Spads) sent along with him from Downing Street, that I really questioned its value as a news operation.

The four of us were kept in a school staff room while Mr Johnson was taken around the school with a Press Association photographer and a BBC film crew for more pictures with young children.

The school itself is being extended. Had I been part of his press team, I would have wanted pictures of him looking at the new classrooms going up - but hey ho, what do I know about news stories?

To be fair to PA and BBC they supplied us with pictures and videos from the event and a few snippets of news about his chats with the children.

But the four of us journalists in the room had 10 minutes with him between us. And when we asked our one question we got stock answers that had been clearly rehearsed.

When I asked a follow-up I saw the special advisors bristle at the side. One shook her head at the PM. To his credit, Mr Johnson answered this and for a couple of minutes we had what I felt was a useful chat about the state of the A14. His minders were clearly having kittens because we'd gone off-script. But then he was gone!

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I hadn't thought much more about this until I read an article in a national political magazine which said this was happening to regional news journalists all over the country.

Why? If you've got the PM or a senior politician visiting the local area, don't you want them to interact with local people (especially local journalists) so they're seen to be bringing the campaign to that area?

Earlier this week I had the totally opposite experience when Home Secretary Priti Patel came to Ipswich.

Ms Patel represents the (relatively) nearby constituency of Witham. I've done various stories with her over the years, some have been quite critical. But while many do find her a spiky character, I've never had a problem her and always found her quite helpful.

I was told on Sunday that there was "an important visitor" coming to Ipswich - and was told where and when to turn up on Monday morning. I didn't need the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to work out who it was.

Ms Patel arrived with security staff, but no Spads trying to organise things. My photographer colleague Sarah and I were invited into the meeting she had with community leaders and towards the end of the visit we sat down for about 15 minutes for a wide-ranging chat which covered a lot of issues of local importance.

But I know that other news organisations, especially the BBC, were left feeling a bit miffed because we were the only news team there - but it worked perfectly for us.

Were we being played? Possibly - but it did allow us to cover a major election issue in Ipswich and it clearly sparked interest among our readers.

So far all the visits we've had have been from leading Conservatives. I suspect this is because there are more Tories in this area - and it's quite a hike for leading Labour politicians to come to this part of the world when there are apparently quite thin pickings to be had.

Apart from Ipswich, Cambridge and the two Norwich seats they don't seem to have much interest in the area - even Waveney and Great Yarmouth don't really seem to be on Labour's radar this time.

I do hope that some of their big names will put in an appearance here - if only to make it easier for me to provide some balance!

But when they do come, I hope they will recognise that the point of visiting the regions is to see and be seen in those regions - and not just do what the London-based Spads tell them and treat the trip like a glorified photo-opportunity!

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