Ian Burrell: Rothermere declares gloves are off between the press and politicians


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Is the British press at war with the nation's politicians? At the London Press Ball on Thursday evening, Lord Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail & General Trust, was almost Churchillian in his rhetoric as he delivered a stirring call to arms.

"We are currently locked in horns with the political establishment," he told industry colleagues sitting amid Jurassic relics in the Natural History Museum. Then a warning to Westminster: "Be careful to treat us with the respect we deserve. Don't forget that more often than not it is left to us, the press industry in this country, to stand up for people up and down this land against an often heavy-handed political establishment."

He called for unity ahead of the impending battles on the beaches. "In the days and months to come, as we become embroiled in a debate as regards the workings of our industry and its future, it's important that we all work together, we think together and," he said, raising the volume, "we speak clearly with one voice, reminding people they live in a country where freedom of expression is the defining aspect of our democracy." Lord Rothermere's words were met with thunderous applause.

The address built on the theme of a presentation made the day before by the Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre at a seminar for the Leveson Inquiry into media standards, in which he claimed to detect the "rank smells of hypocrisy and revenge in the political class's moral indignation" over the hacking scandal.

DMGT, publisher of the Mail and Mail on Sunday, is positioning itself as chief defender of the press in the face of a scandal created by the rival News International stable, which has lost its industry voice in the light of the misdemeanours at the News of the World. There is concern that the entire popular press will be damaged by the hacking affair and that the highbrow composition of the Leveson panel will be unsympathetic to the role it performs in British life.

Politicians are feeling heat from newspapers. Defence Secretary Liam Fox's problems have dominated the front page of politically sympathetic titles such as the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and The Times. Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin was skilfully turned over by the Mirror, which pictured him dumping secret documents in a park. But the idea of a clash between sworn enemies (MPs and journalists) is misleading. The Leveson Inquiry was ordered by a Conservative Prime Minister who was backed at last year's election by the majority of national newspapers, including the Daily Mail and News of the World.

Kelvin MacKenzie, in his music hall cameo at Leveson, was right to point out that the inquiry came about largely because of the cosy relationship between politicians and the press ("Cameron's obsessive arse-kissing", to use the words of the former editor of The Sun).

Mr Cameron and his colleagues did their best to minimise the importance of the hacking saga, whereas newspapers – most notably The Guardian and The Independent – have done most to keep the issue in the public eye. MPs who have been most critical of the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission are often quick to turn to the regulator when they find themselves in the news. The PCC, funded by the press industry, last week appointed former Cabinet minister Lord Hunt of Wirral as its next chairman. He is seen as someone with good contacts throughout Westminster.

The relationship between press and parliament is far from strictly adversarial. In many ways the two depend on each other, as the former BBC Home Affairs correspondent Jon Silverman explains in an important book published this week. Crime Policy and the Media shows how successive home secretaries have colluded with the press in shaping populist criminal justice policies, which have not always been helpful to frontline services.

Silverman, a professor of media and criminal justice, highlights the relationship between Labour Home Secretary John Reid and Andy Coulson's News of the World, which he used as a platform to announce new initiatives such as the 2006 decision to exclude convicted sex offenders from bail hostels. "This decision was taken on a Friday afternoon, following a meeting with representatives of the News of the World at the Home Office, and trumpeted on the front page of the newspaper two days later," says the book. Reid told the paper he had "asked the minister to study specifically the News of the World's 'Sarah's Law' proposals on controlled access to information [on sex offenders]".

The News of the World's phone hacking of the mother of the child whose murder prompted that Sarah's Law campaign is part of the sad story that has led to the Leveson Inquiry. But Silverman says politicians and journalists are not at war. "What we are seeing is more like a married couple that have fallen out."