Ken versus the 'Standard': it's a nasty war in which there will be no winner

Is there justification for the idea that newspapers can be obsessive about individuals, setting out to vilify them, or catch them out? Individuals such as Ken Livingstone? Put another way, is there justification for the paranoia that some public figures feel about the press and their intentions? Public figures such as Ken Livingstone?

Is there justification for the idea that newspapers can be obsessive about individuals, setting out to vilify them, or catch them out? Individuals such as Ken Livingstone? Put another way, is there justification for the paranoia that some public figures feel about the press and their intentions? Public figures such as Ken Livingstone?

The Mayor of London certainly feels that about Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and London's Evening Standard. He hates them. And this hatred was clearly involved in remarks he made to a Jewish reporter on the Standard.

Leaving aside the specifics of that row, there is no doubt that Livingstone has always had his fair share of column inches, and has done much to earn them. We forget in these New Labour days how generous the "loony left" was in providing copy for newspapers to the right of that tendency (all of them). The press targeted it, yes, but it did much to help build the copy mountain that made such a contribution to what was later recognised as Labour's unelectability. That led to Neil Kinnock's Labour conference speech dumping on Derek Hatton and friends. It was to lead to New Labour, Tony Blair, and the substitution of political correctness for loony leftism.

Hatred for the right-wing press was part of the old Labour credo at the time. But increasingly sensible Labour - Kinnock, Blair, Brown, Straw - spent a lot of time with journalists, particularly political journalists, and clearly enjoyed their company. It was, with hindsight, a little amateurish, a little naive. They would mix with reporters from papers they thought sympathetic while attacking the representatives of the "enemy", the Murdoch newspapers and the Mail group newspapers.

With New Labour came the new professionalism. Mandelson and Campbell, creations of Blair, set about courting the enemy rather than savaging it. Whether it was editors such as Rebekah Wade, now of The Sun, formerly of the News of the World, or proprietors, the idea was to cuddle up and connect. Livingstone would never understand, but then he was no part of the New Labour project. He portrays himself only as a victim of the press.

Does the press set out to create such victims? If ordinary members of the public sat in on some editorial conferences they would be surprised at the intensity of the some of the language. This is often a sham, part of the management techniques of some editors and their senior executives as they seek to motivate reporters. Terms such as "monster" and "turn over" were certainly in common usage when I was at The Sunday Times. Andrew Neil, the then editor, was in profound disagreement with every thought had by the then chancellor, Norman Lamont, and would regularly announce what damage the paper should be doing to him.

The Guardian, for its part, was relentless in its pursuit of Jonathan Aitken, over conflicts in his role as a government minister and his association with Middle Eastern arms dealers. The feud went all the way to the libel courts - and in Aitken's case to prison - as the Tory MP pledged to "cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in this country". Was that a vendetta - an obsession by The Guardian that they would "get" Aitken? Certainly the latter, but it was soundly based, and journalists will not expose without that degree of obsessive determination.

It can be personal when it is political - when the story is based more on the political standpoint of the paper than the supposed wrongdoing of the person being written about. Livingstone may believe that the Mail has for years been "out to get him". John Prescott, for decades sneered at by the Mail for his education, intellect, coherence, background and number of Jaguars, has always shrugged and turned the other cheek, usually with a witty sideswipe at the journalists. It always works.

Do newspapers go for individuals? Certainly, but usually when they are public figures against whom allegations have been made, who appear to be guilty of great humbug or hypocrisy, or who represent a policy or point of view opposite to that supported by the paper. In which case, fair game. If it is simply malicious, then it is indefensible, and the law can play a role. Many of those who moan loudest about the wickedness of the press have benefited most from constant media exposure, be it supportive or non-supportive. Red Ken never got where he did in politics by being "unavailable for comment".

One footnote, however. Who moans loudest, finds the experience most painful, and is least able to handle it when subjected to close scrutiny by the media? Undoubtedly journalists, who, when reluctantly drawn into the public eye themselves, are notoriously bad at taking what they are so good at dishing out.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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