Clarke takes on liberal press - and dines on humble pie

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Charles Clarke certainly chose a good week to lecture fellow professionals on how they do their jobs. Dressing-downs in private and then in public must have seemed, to the journalists involved, a little rich coming from a man who would spend the rest of the week making grovelling apologies to anyone who offered him a microphone.

The week's news could be divided into market segments, as are the newspapers. In the up-market bracket was the Charles Clarke failure-to-deport saga; mid-market was Patricia Hewitt taking arrows from angry nurses; and then Prescott smut - down-market, red-top, probably cellophane-wrapped.

The overture was provided by Charles Clarke, who was so busy not locating foreign rapists that he called in members of the press. Imagine: Home Secretary sits in his office with journalists he has summoned - why were they all so available and agreeable to turning up? - and harangues them. Their sin? They were journalists from newspapers of liberal outlook who had questioned the civil liberties credentials of the Government.

Later that day Clarke moved his anger to the London School of Economics, where he delivered a speech about the "pernicious and dangerous poison slipping into some parts of the media view of the world". This view, he said, "rhetorically transferred" to democracies like Britain and the United States the characteristics of the "genuinely dangerous and evil totalitarian dictatorships" that have passed away. He named and shamed Simon Carr of The Independent, Henry Porter of The Observer and Jenni Russell of The Guardian. They had all written articles expressing concerns over government actions in the name of anti-terrorism and attacking crime and public disorder. These writers were worried about ID cards, collection of DNA and computer records, and the right to trial by jury.

Readers of those papers are the citizens most likely to be concerned about these matters, as in my view we should all be. How unsurprising that it is writers in such left-of-centre papers who are performing their proper journalistic role as watchdog of the Government. And how surprising that the Home Secretary in a Labour government, who in his earlier life as a student and Labour activist would have endorsed the articles he decried, should be attacking the papers representing views closest to Labour. The impression given is that he cares much less about the papers that have no problem with a reduction in civil liberties if it leads to greater protection of the public.

Clarke's achievement was to provoke Daily Telegraph support for liberal rivals. It said in a leader that the Home Secretary "pines after a polity where the executive does what it likes and the media does what it is told". There is something patronising as well as arrogant when Labour politicians start taking it out more on those who are basically for them. The tone, from a Government short on ideology, is one of weariness about naïve idealism on the liberal left and its failure to understand how hard it is to govern in the real world. They demand unquestioning support from those they expect to be their friends, yet, in Blair's case, will fly round the world to see Rupert Murdoch.

Then come the bad times - in this case 24 hours after Clarke was "entertaining" his journalist "guests". The triple whammy produces predictable descriptions from newspapers that are usually critical of the Government: shambles, meltdown, incompetence, woeful, shamed. Hardened Labour politicians would expect that, and would look for some relief to daily papers considered on their side, such as The Independent, Guardian and Mirror.

And they would have found the advice of critical friends - recognising difficulties but not going over the top about them. "The Government is not in meltdown," said The Independent. "While politically damaging, the nature of the Home Office crisis has been exaggerated in ways that risk fuelling xenophobia." The Guardian said: "There remains a sense of purpose and direction, a continued desire to rule."

Hardly the sort of language that so upsets Charles Clarke, whose own manner of describing journalists is so intemperate. Better really than he deserved after the failures of management he so readily and regularly confessed to. Timing? Bad. Killing the messenger? Never a good idea.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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