Come the election, it will be business (and bias) as usual

Personal loyalties and professional views collide as the papers divide on party lines

It is reported that The Guardian is riven. Editorial factions, we are told, "feud over whether to continue supporting Tony Blair". They aren't the only ones.

The Guardian, where I worked for many years, has always had something of the debating chamber about it. As with old Labour, its staff contains many with traditional left-wing views, but the paper is led from the centre. It lives in the political mainstream, but there is always a faction on the staff which would prefer it were well to the left of that. In the 1980s it had a features editor and a foreign editor, both educated at élite public schools, who were supporters of small, far-left parties. The debate was vigorous. "Let a thousand flowers bloom," one of them would say, usually when he was on the wrong end of an argument. He meant red flowers, of course. The task of the editor - and The Guardian hasn't had very many - is to hold the centre-left ground while taking advantage of the intellectual diversity of the internal debate.

One forgets, as one reads the rants of Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail, that she was once a prominent figure on The Guardian who regularly made her views known (they were very different from today). And one forgets how very riven the paper's staff were in the early 1980s when a senior and influential faction not only supported the SDP but four of them stood as SDP candidates in the general election. That certainly caused some feuding.

Supporting Tony Blair though is more than a left/right issue. It is an Iraq issue. And this complicates any predictions about where national newspapers will direct their support at the general election expected next year. There are, presumably, staff on The Independent who supported the war, although the paper was, and is, deeply opposed. But one would not rule out that newspaper supporting Labour.

I would expect The Guardian to maintain its support for Labour, adding many qualifications and probably using expressions such as "on balance". The Mirror, now that it has abandoned its flirtation with seriousness, will support Labour because that is what it does. And The Daily Telegraph will support the Conservatives until pigs fly over Canary Wharf.

The papers over the week of the Tory conference demonstrated a distinct lack of interest in the party, or more likely a judgement about their readers' lack of interest. While the BBC, in its post-Hutton, pre-Charter renewal condition of uncertainty, provided vast coverage, most of the press consigned it to inside pages.

Even the voice of (Tory) middle England, the Daily Mail, did not once lead on the conference, even on Howard speech day preferring "HRT: another health alert". They were supportive in a leader, but it is the front page that sets the tone. And what about the newspaper that announced in April its "historic decision to back the Conservatives". So historic that rather than majoring on Michael Howard's speech the Daily Express preferred to attract its readers with "Abortion? Just have it done at your GP's surgery". These two middle-market papers will come into line for the election, but Howard (pictured) can hardly feel reassured.

As ever, the two daily Murdoch titles tantalise by playing their cards close to their chests. The Times, extraordinarily, devoted fully half of its compact front page to a picture of a Dior model when it would have been expected to focus on the (totally absent from the front) Howard speech. The leader was decidedly lukewarm in its support.

The Sun is the one both Blair and Howard want, and it will continue to play hard to get. It decided that its readers would be more interested in "TV Amy trashes her ex's home", and "Coleen is held by customs for 3hrs" than the politics of the new political integrity. But its editorial was cautiously supportive, enough to give Blair cause for concern.

In Yorkshire some still think of the Yorkshire Post as their national newspaper. It is the most famous of the regional mornings, of which there are only 10 in England, and all their circulations have fallen over recent years. Last week, the YP gained a new editor, Peter Charlton, who, like his nine counterparts, will try to arrest decline. As a reader of the paper, I wish him well. If John Prescott is right about the desire for regional government, and that's a big question, then there is surely room for the regional morning newspaper.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

Free by the sea

While the rest of us shivered in the sharp winds of a British autumn, the cream of the TV industry has been lapping up the sun at the annual Mipcom TV programming fair in Cannes. Granada Media went mob-handed, taking 64 people. The BBC outdid it with no fewer than 92 representatives taking the Cote d'Azur air. But the all-comers' prize goes to Fremantle Media - responsible forNeighbours, The Bill, Jamie's Kitchen, and Pop Idol - whose numbers added up to a staggering 104. They even set up their own plastic village on the beach.

Home Malone

The smoke has risen on a long-running and bitter saga at The Observer. Six weeks ago Andy Malone, The Observer's excitable executive news editor, walked out of the building, complaining that the former political editor, Kamal Ahmed was encroaching on his job. It seems he may have had a point. At the beginning of last week it was established that Malone was not going to come back, in any capacity, other than to clear his desk and collect his pay-off. The man leaves with his keen nose for a story intact. For who is it that editor Roger Alton is installing as his new executive editor? Congratulations Kamal Ahmed!

Boris in the slow lane

Amid the hectic schedule that befits a Renaissance man, Boris Johnson finds time to keep up his schedule of jogging ("running" as he prefers to call it). "Jogging is a loaded, left-wing term," he insists. Boris's technique is to mutter morale-boosting mantras as he makes stately progress along the seafront. Among those overheard are: "Fit for power", "Onwards and upwards", and "Backwards and forwards".

Rod's little lapse

Barely a week seems to go by without Rod Liddle raking over the ashes of his marriage in one of his columns, but now he has confessed that it was his magazine musings which prompted his marital downfall. Liddle says that after writing in GQ about his affair with Alicia Monckton, he left the magazine open at the page in question, on the fridge. His new wife, Rachel Royce, then found it. And his vehicle for imparting the latest insight into his lack of foresight? GQ.

No smokes without fire

A sure sign of the march of political correctness was the conspicuous absence of hacks or big Tory puffers at the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association bash at the Tory party conference last week. This used to be the hottest ticket in town, thanks to the free booze, fags and cigars, and many a shadow cabinet figure could be lobbied amid the fug. This year chaps from Gallagher admitted they were losing the battle against the new puritans. One thing did not change - the rush by those journalists who did attend to stuff handfuls of freebie smokes into their pockets.

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