After abortion week it's Gypsy fortnight

Politicians and papers each have agendas. Funny how they coincide at election time
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The Independent Online

To Michael Howard, it is "responding to people's concerns". To Alan Milburn it is "serial opportunism". Amazing how much more pressing people's concerns are as a general election approaches. Amazing how opposition attitudes to council tax and immigration are opportunist when government announcements on school dinners and bus passes are not.

To Michael Howard, it is "responding to people's concerns". To Alan Milburn it is "serial opportunism". Amazing how much more pressing people's concerns are as a general election approaches. Amazing how opposition attitudes to council tax and immigration are opportunist when government announcements on school dinners and bus passes are not.

The only surprising thing is that the politicians so consistently and comprehensively underestimate the intelligence of the electorate and then blame the cynicism and negativism of the media for pointing up their own crude electoral tactics. Newspapers have agendas. Politicians have agendas. Elections focus the relationships between those agendas.

For example, we know the Daily Express dislikes asylum-seekers, unemployed immigrants, Gypsies, Europe and New Labour. Just under a year ago it announced its "historic decision to back the Conservatives". It had dabbled with New Labour when it was owned by the Tony-crony peer Clive Hollick. Richard Desmond, his successor as publisher of the Express, eventually returned to traditional values. So over the past week we have seen reports of "intimidation, noise, filth and sewage in the ditches" in the Express. Headlines tell us that Michael Howard will "jail the Gypsy invaders". A leader warns about "the menace of Gypsies who flout the law and despoil the countryside with their rubbish-strewn, insanitary squats".

The Express has not been alone. The Sun is campaigning against illegal Gypsy sites and, on the evidence of last week, against spending "taxpayers' money" on legal ones. The Daily Mail was also on the travellers' trail with spreads of "mighty oaks chopped down to make way for caravans", of Michael Howard sharing "the misery of village with camp next door", and Labour's "Nazi slurs on Howard" over his plans for illegal traveller camps.

So there has been a Gypsy frenzy in predictable sections of the press, and tut-tutting about Gypsy frenzy in predictable other sections of the press. According to The Independent, Tory "pronouncements on asylum and immigration have been shameless attempts to capitalise on xenophobia". The same "ugly impulse" lay behind their targeting of Gypsies.

To the average member of the public who reads one newspaper this sudden emergence of an "issue" must be puzzling. Pockets of concern about encampments exist where Gypsies are, and are reported in local papers. But national publicity is very occasional, and concerted national publicity does not happen. Why now?

The previous week it was abortion. A Howard magazine interview; headlines in the usual suspect newspapers, support flushed out from archbishops and then a minor national debate about whether abortion should be turned into an election issue. By which time it had been, to a limited extent.

Throughout this period of general election foreplay these populist issues have dripped out, or rather been dripped out. There have been newspaper stories of an immoderate nature. There have been press conferences and speeches from the Conservative leader. And, too often, there have been attempts by the government to identify with the issue in a "me too" kind of way.

The defence of the populist issues by the populist press is that they are popular and therefore not to be ignored. The liberal establishment, they will say, uses words like "incitement" to condemn responsible discussion of issues of concern to many people, when in fact they fear discussion because they know it would leave them in the minority.

The Fortnight of the Gypsy, then, consisted of a starter week of stories of filthy, illegal camps in the Express/Mail/Sun section of the press. This was followed last Sunday by advertisements in many newspapers from the Conservative Party, taking the form of a letter from Michael Howard telling us that he believed in fair play. Travellers did not. They bent planning law and sheltered behind human rights law.

The Independent on Sunday led on the story. "Howard stirs race row with attack on Gypsies. Tories accused of bigotry in placing traveller camps on election agenda." This dramatic presentation - to be expected from a newspaper at the liberal end of the spectrum - of course made its own contribution to placing the issue on the election agenda. Other papers picked up on the story. And on Monday Michael Howard visited an illegal Gypsy camp and made a speech demanding tougher action on travellers. And then there were more stories of filthy camps.

The whole operation had gone like clockwork and, in a corner of Westminster, Guy Black, Michael Howard's spinmeister, quietly smiled to himself.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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