Media: Pro-war, anti-war, or just anti-Labour?

Reporting the war: Slobodan Milosevic understood the importance of the media long before the current war. But now that the bombs are falling, the diversity of opinion in the British press is in stark contrast to the monolithic view from Belgrade
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE WAS something deeply symbolic about The Observer coming out in favour of the Nato bombing on Sunday with an editorial headlined: "There is no alternative to this war." In 1956 it was the same paper that incurred the wrath of advertisers and readers by opposing Britain's engagement in Suez. More boldly still, it accused Anthony Eden, the prime minister of the day, of misleading Parliament because he had refused to acknowledge covert Israeli involvement in the operation. The paper was factually right, as it subsequently turned out, but that didn't stop it suffering obloquy for its perceived lack of patriotism for years afterwards - even though Hugh Gaitskell's Labour party was also opposed to the war.

The Observer's reverse is symbolic for several reasons. The first is that it is the left to liberal press, which has been most squeamish about war in the past, and which is now the most supportive of Nato. The notable exception last weekend was The Independent on Sunday, The Observer's main rival for the liberal audience, which came out unequivocally against the war, arguing cogently that Nato was the wrong institution to be acting as the world's policeman. But otherwise The Guardian, The Independent and the pro-Labour tabloids The Sun and The Mirror (apart from the latter's Paul Routledge) have been supportive. The Express has also supported British involvement in the war, although more questioningly.

In this respect the left-of-centre press has broadly reflected the larger political community, in which the strongest support, naturally, is among Government backbenchers who believe in an "ethical foreign policy" and a new international order, in which military intervention to protect the oppressed is regarded as desirable. The Times and The Telegraph mirror the Tory front bench which - with reservations - has backed the Government. And the Daily Mail, of which more in a moment, reflects the Tory right, which has been the most condemnatory of the Nato bombing,

The Observer's Suez history is a reminder of something else that has changed. There is much less jingoism in editorialising and commentary on this war - at least in middle-market and upmarket papers - than there was during the Falklands war or even the Gulf war. Two of the most-read Times commentators, Simon Jenkins and Matthew Parris, are strongly opposed. True, The Sun, with its "Clobba Slobba" headlines is doing its best. But just as the support for the war is less gung-ho, so no one has yet turned on the editorialists and commentators who oppose the war to accuse them of being disloyal or unpatriotic, let alone treacherous - even though the Serbian media is closely monitoring British coverage and regularly quotes articles which criticise the war effort.

In fact the opinions of commentators haven't necessarily been easy to call in advance, to judge by a sample from last week. Philip Stephens (the Financial Times) is pro, though wants ground troops involved; The Guardian's Hugo Young is pro; The Express's Andrew Marr is critical. The Independent's Andreas Whittam Smith is anti (and at least three of this paper's other columnists are pro); and the ubiquitous Roy Hattersley is "on balance" pro.

The diversity and debate in the British press is just what contrasts it with a monolithic media in Belgrade, now Milosevic has shut down B92 radio and other independent services (on Saturday official Belgrade radio cheerfully reported that two pilots had been captured and four Cruise missiles downed, and that the Pentagon had "confirmed the losses").

Nevertheless, the Daily Mail is in a category of its own. Almost monolithically critical of the war, it has printed two diatribes by the distinguished historian Corelli Barnett and run regularly hostile editorials. In a typical spread across pages eight and nine yesterday, the Oxford historian Mark Almond underlined the historical implacability of Serbs while the Gulf War commander Sir Peter de la Billiere expressed his "growing fear" that Milosevic will succeed. Meanwhile Mail columnist Simon Heffer is critical, albeit in polite and sympathetic terms, of Tony Blair's strategy.

No doubt Paul Dacre, the paper's editor, is genuinely worried that this is a military adventure which may end badly and that British lives should not be put at risk to stop an internal conflict in which direct British interests are not involved. But there are those in the Government who also suspect that it is part of a growing anti-Labour line, also visible in its coverage of the Budget's tax implications. Whatever the truth, it's hard to imagine that the Daily Mail would have been anything like as critical of a British military action if - say - Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister.

Partly, of course, this underlines the fact that, for all Labour's success in wooing the hostile press, Tony Blair will never enjoy the umbilical relationship with it that Thatcher did. In fact, we should welcome the diversity of opinion and debate on the war. However, you also can't help noticing in passing that when the right attacks a Labour government for making war, it's fair comment; but when the left criticises a Conservative government for making war, it's unpatriotic.