There's nothing journalists love more than flexing their muscles

Run enough stories and eventually there will be a reaction. This reaction, of course, vindicates the stories
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THAT famous novel of political campaigning, Primary Colors, the narrator, Henry, describes how the US press corps (or "scorps" as he calls them) descend upon him, looking for his reaction to his rivals' reactions to a sex scandal that has not quite happened yet. In Henry's view the situation is surreal:

"They weren't scumbag gossip reporters, they were media analysts. The scorps weren't reporting the trash, but how we dealt with the trash. The story hadn't really broken yet, and already it was one step removed: the press was reporting about how the candidate would deal with how the press would report about the story."

When I first read that paragraph, penned by the veteran American political journalist Joe Klein (alias "Anonymous"), I was transported back to the election of 1992. Historians record that Labour lost this campaign for two main reasons: a lack of faith in Neil Kinnock as prospective prime minister, and the perception of Labour as a party of high taxation (although some of our more eccentric commentators throw in the Sheffield victory rally for good measure).

But no one argues today that the decisive factor was an incident surrounding a party political broadcast by Labour, transmitted on 24 March 1992, that came to be known as the War of Jennifer's Ear. They did then, though. As the background to a true story about ear grommets on the National Health became ever more convoluted, TV news viewers witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of newspaper journalists interviewing each other about who had told whom what trivia regarding the real Jennifer.

For the first time in the entire campaign the BBC newsroom came alive with some sort of excitement. Here, at last, was a real, running story. Front pages were held and the language was apocalyptic. Recrimination inside the Labour camp was intense. Yet, six years later, Labour's PR expert Philip Gould, in his book The Unfinished Revolution, concludes only that, "whatever our true position `Jennifer's Ear' had not hurt us. It might even have helped."

It was a classic Beltway story, inflated beyond reason by the strange relationship that exists between political journalists and politicians. Something similar has been happening in America - albeit on a grander scale - for the last year. But ever since 23 December it has been Jennifer's Ear time again here in Britain. The initial revelation of the Mandelson loan was followed by stage two of the story, when tabloids and broadsheets scoured every soft furnisher's and design gallery in West London, looking for signs of high living.

But Peter departed, and the story threatened to go away. Various promising little pathways to do with the Britannia Building Society also seemed to lead nowhere. And so the whole thing mutated into a "who leaked the story" story. The more farcical part of this enquiry has involved The Guardian and The Mirror swapping insults and column inches on whether a package destined for Mr Paul Routledge, and containing his new Kitty Kelley-style biography of Mr Mandelson, was somehow hijacked by ruthless broadsheet hacks. The only thing missing was one of those Sunday Times charts of the passage of the manuscript through various cubbyholes in the Commons press gallery.

Without any evidence at all, the blame for the leak was eventually hung around the hairy neck of Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's press secretary. This gave the Mandelson affair its third twist: the Chancellor was said to be at war with the Prime Minister. Once again, with little evidence adduced that there was any meaningful difference between Blair and Brown, vast screeds were devoted to the two men and their entourages, allies and enemies. Yesterday, after nearly a week of this and after Whelan had resigned, Tony Blair felt it necessary to tell the press that his relationship with Gordon was very close. Within hours I heard a newscaster ask a correspondent to agree that it was "significant that he felt the need to say this".

If you stop and consider for a moment, the circularity of the process becomes obvious. Run enough stories and eventually there will be a reaction. This reaction, of course, vindicates the original stories. Charlie Whelan said (and I believe him) that he resigned because "I had become the story". But as soon as he announced his departure some were asking, rhetorically, why - if he had done nothing wrong - he felt it necessary to go.

When we journalists ask politicians about "appearances" rather than substance ("But it doesn't look good, does it, minister?"), you can bet that we are on intellectually weak ground. On Wednesday the announcement of Prince Edward's impending marriage was covered on some outlets almost entirely in terms of how newspapers would report it, or had already reported it. This is not surprising, because the event itself has no significance whatsoever. Edward is the fourth child and will never ascend to the throne, and his wedding has only a certain titillating, soap-opera value. Except to him, of course.

But, unlike the case with the Whelan story, at least there was the excuse that some readers, viewers or listeners might be interested in it. By contrast very few people care about the Chancellor's press secretary, preferring to concentrate on arcane matters such as the funding of the health service. And, as with Jennifer's Ear, when the next election comes, the name Whelan will not be on the lips of those exiting from polling stations.

So why do we get these feeding frenzies? Our man in the States, Andrew Marshall, yesterday quoted the Internet muckraker, Matt Drudge, as having advised that "you gotta feed the machine slowly". But the machine is not fed by, say, the fact that there is an Aids epidemic in South Africa that threatens that country's ability to lead the continent out of poverty and tyranny. That story will be reported in the broadsheets, but it will simply not get the prominence or the journalistic effort expended upon it that will go into a Mandelson/Whelan saga.

I think there are two reasons for this, apart from the traditional anti- intellectualism of British journalistic culture. The first is that any story about spin doctors is really a story about us journalists ourselves. If they are the spinners, we are the spun; if they are manipulators, then we are the manipulated. We use them, and we hate them for it. They are our dark reflections. Or is it the other way round?

The second reason is egotism. Some of us prefer to shape the world rather than merely to reflect it; to create the news and not just report it. It was "The Sun wot won it" in '92, The Guardian that laid Mandelson low in '98, The Mirror that did for Charlie Whelan in '99, and next year - God willing - it will be that powerful, incisive journalist, David Aaronovitch, who will be responsible for the fall of Jack Cunningham...

Or someone like that. Mmmmm, feel my muscles.

Comments