Bill Hagerty on the press

There's an election coming: it's time to look in the Mirror again

Halfway through the party season, and it's hell out there. Brighton, then Bournemouth, now Brighton and back to Bournemouth next week; reeling from hotel to hotel on the fringe, occasionally dropping in at the Conference Centre - well, the bars there are good for meeting friends and even the odd delegate, should that be unavoidable.

Halfway through the party season, and it's hell out there. Brighton, then Bournemouth, now Brighton and back to Bournemouth next week; reeling from hotel to hotel on the fringe, occasionally dropping in at the Conference Centre - well, the bars there are good for meeting friends and even the odd delegate, should that be unavoidable.

Yes, it's the parties at the political party conferences that really take it out of the working press. In terms of stories, recent years have shown that as hotbeds of news the annual seaside away-weeks of the Lib Dems, Labour and the Conservatives - with the TUC providing the warm-up - are not what they used to be. Labour's certainly isn't: many media professionals consider it to have become a waste of time since the important and often heated policy discussions that once muscled their way on to national newspaper front pages became no more than dull centrepieces around which countless convivial social events whirled.

Yet this week there are signs of a distinct and not particularly subtle change. The politics at Brighton may not enthrall a nation captivated more by football and reality television than the democratic process, but the press, and one newspaper in particular, suddenly finds itself involved in matters other than whether to order a single or double Scotch in the lounge of the Grand.

The reason is an outbreak of a disease that strikes politicians only once every four years or so. It is called electionitis, or, more commonly, fear. Symptoms include treating delegates - often considered a necessary irritant by the political leaderships - with more respect. So, too, the fourth estate - whether newspapers can actually effect the outcome of a General Election is a moot point, but it's best not to take chances. Hence the "be nice to the press" theme of this conference season.

The softening of Labour's attitude is most marked by the re-emergence into its good books of the Daily Mirror, despite the paper being a shadow of its former self in sales terms. "It is as if Blair has suddenly woken up to the importance of the traditional Labour supporters - those that have backed them through thick and thin," a senior Mirror journalist told me. Actually, the paper's approval has been absent during some of the thick, but it has endorsed Labour at every General Election since the Second World War. So, with Rupert Murdoch's allegiance possibly no more permanent than the morning paper it's printed in, the Mirror is back in favour.

Its long-standing mid-conference lunch with the leader - the only paper to have such an arrangement with Labour - survives in spite of the departed Piers Morgan's vigorous anti-Iraq invasion stance (just as, more than a decade ago, Robert Maxwell's offensive patronising of Neil Kinnock did not dent tradition). Tony and possibly Cherie Blair will sit down with the Trinity Mirror chairman Sir Victor Blank, the chief executive Sly Bailey and the editors of the company's three national titles - a humbler turn-out than at one lunch with the late John Smith, when the Mirror contingent numbered 29 - but significant none the less.

Not that the parties are denied a role in this reconciliation. The Mirror's do, changed by Morgan from a discreet cocktail-party to an expensive and rocking knees-up, was several years ago graced by four cabinet ministers bopping under the strobe lights - and it can expect similar hierarchical attention on Wednesday.

"The change in attitude to the Mirror is amazing," said my informant. Amazing - and, it seems, successful: this morning's editorial, I am reliably informed, puts the paper shoulder-to-shoulder with the Government on the campaign trail towards a third term.

How to bite the hand that feeds

The debut of The Independent's media section comes soon after the former magazine and newspaper editor Dennis Hackett examined the explosion of such coverage for the British Journalism Review. He's suspicious of what he sees as professional navel-gazing, concluding that there is too much media in the media, and that objectivity is elusive for many commentators.

As one of these, I was struck by Hackett's observation that those who write or broadcast about the media are inhibited by being unable to criticise the organisations that employ them. "You can't imagine, for instance, were you writing for The Times," he reasons, "suggesting a piece on the downside of producing a broadsheet and a tabloid, and how the two make unhappy bedfellows."

Now that The Independent is entirely compact, this is a challenge I do not have to meet. But I do take issue with Hackett. No pundit can be expected to view the publication or programme for which he or she works as perfect, even if it does pay the rent. In my case, while appreciating that The Independent's one-subject "poster" front pages have contributed to the paper's success, I believe the technique is employed too frequently - sometimes to the detriment of another story that demands front-page prominence.

The Independent's editor is a tolerant fellow, so stating this view doesn't jeopardise my position here. At least, I think not.

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