Media: That's enough pandering to the party: When David Seymour came to the 'Mirror' its long-time political editor left. Here, Seymour argues that the paper fell into an abyss of banality - and must now change

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The Independent Online
AT A Labour conference fringe meeting on the press some years ago, the fierce critics of tabloid journalism were silenced by Dick Clements, the former editor of Tribune, who was then heading Michael Foot's office. He asked them if what they really wanted was a free, independent press - as they claimed - or did they want sycophantic newspapers that were uncritical of Labour's failings but merely peddled its propaganda?

There was no reply from the audience because that is not a question with which political activists like to be faced. Politicians tend to trumpet the merits of a free press, while preferring to have one that supports their point of view.

It is this contradiction that has led to my appointment as group associate editor (politics) at Mirror Group Newspapers. What this mouthful of a title means in practice is not that I will be the papers' political commissar but that I will be returning journalism to the Mirror Group's political coverage.

My appointment led to a certain amount of adverse coverage in last week's papers. It is a salutary experience for a journalist to be on the other side of the fence for a change. The personal attacks on me are not worthy of reply. The professional and political ones will be answered by the kind of Daily Mirror that I will help to produce.

It goes without saying that the Mirror titles will continue to support the Labour Party. No one involved with the company, from the bankers left with Maxwell's shares to the humblest reporter, would even contemplate a different political leaning.

Labour is the only party that represents the values of caring, compassion and decency of the Mirror's readers. To attempt to ape the Sun or any other newspaper would be a betrayal of the millions who turn to the Mirror as a sympathetic voice and see it as their champion in adversity.

Yet until Robert Maxwell's arrival, the Mirror Group was not an uncritical supporter of Labour. It was not scared to complain about policies it believed were wrong or to lead the fight for a Labour government when the party itself seemed to be dragging its feet.

More than 10 years ago I was responsible for conducting the Mirror's investigations into the subversive and damaging role of the Militant tendency within the party. At the time, both the newspaper and I were condemned. Yet it was a cause that was later taken up by the party leadership.

The Mirror never agreed with Labour's unilateralist defence policy. It had its own view on the way to resolve the situation in Northern Ireland. It was critical of over- powerful unions. The paper had given its heart to Labour but reserved the right to use its head when commenting on politics.

Over the past few years, though, that has not been the case. The influence of Maxwell's ownership extended far beyond insisting that editors reported his personal activities, as I know only too well from the two years in which I wrote Mirror leaders under his control. Maxwell was a propagandist, and the fine political journalists who worked on the Mirror either had to leave or succumb to his view of political journalism.

Yet no newspaper can maintain its integrity while existing as little more than a propaganda sheet or house newspaper for any political party. I have applauded the way in which the Mail and the Telegraph have distanced themselves from the Conservative Party in recent years.

Those who believe this weakens the political resolve or influence of the newspapers concerned are utterly wrong. It does exactly the opposite. Readers are far more likely to be convinced by the opinions of a paper that has an intelligent mind of its own rather than a knee-jerk approval of everything done by the party it supports.

The Daily Mirror descended into an abyss of banal criticism and offensive name-calling of the Tories while cheering on every move of the Labour leadership.

Last week I joked that under the old Mirror regime, an editorial would have been written saying: 'Didn't the England soccer team play badly? They only scored six goals against San Marino. If there had been a Labour government, they would have scored 20.' The simplistic stance adopted by the Mirror was not only an insult to the readers but inevitably led to a mentality in which the true significance of political developments was missed.

When John Smith made his historic speech at Bournemouth earlier this month, the Daily Mirror carried only a brief report on page four. At Today, where I was then responsible for political coverage, the speech was reported on page one and the whole of page two. It was accompanied by a major editorial and a leader-page article, which I wrote, applauding the significant lead that Mr Smith was giving to his party.

No one who wishes to see a Mirror that effectively supports the Labour Party or represents the best in political journalism should be concerned at the recent changes in MGN. In future, our newspapers will say what they mean and mean what they say. That always was the tradition at the Mirror and it is a tradition we are determined to recapture.