Shadowy figure keeps the press pack on-message;Briefing;Analysis

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Education's most influential "invisible man" is Conor Ryan, special adviser to David Blunkett. His pager, mobile and home telephone numbers are well-thumbed in education correspondents' contacts books.

A former Inner London Education Authority press officer, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Labour's education policies. Although he hides in the shadows he is easily picked out at press conferences; he is the one at the heart of the media scrum, nudging journalists onto the "real" story.

A graduate of the Mandelson school of spinning, Irish-born Ryan is nevertheless trusted and liked by education correspondents. He is most likely to say: "Actually, I think you'll find the real story is..." He is least likely to say: "I admit it, the Government got it wrong."

Past education secretaries such as John MacGregor and Gillian Shephard were wrong-footed by different "spin" coming from Downing Street. But, so far, Ryan and his Number 10 counterpart have pushed a consistent line.

Nevertheless, Blunkett has to keep a weather eye on Tony Blair's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, who has a tight hold over the Cabinet's presentational skills. He is even known to tell ministers what he thinks of their performances on the Today programme.

A former Daily Mirror political editor, Campbell is particularly adept at handling the tabloids and focuses on keeping the Daily Mail and The Express "on-message" with Blair's parent-friendly education ideas. He believes it is most vital to get Labour's message into the mass-market tabloids as that is where the big, politically uncommitted readership lies.

So, Tony Halpin, the Mail's education correspondent , is a key target of the spin doctors. The Mail is read by the very voters that "New Labour" has successfully targeted. Those signed articles by Tony Blair or David Blunkett are much more likely to appear in the Mail or the Express than in the Guardian.

Perhaps the most influential education correspondent is also the least visible to the public -Tim Miles of the news agency, the Press Association. You may not read his stories directly but they have all flashed across the monitors in the country's newsrooms.

Since there is a strong herd mentality in newsrooms, the Press Association can often set the tone for coverage of a story. You can be sure that Conor Ryan knows all of Tim Miles' contact numbers.

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