Media Viewpoint: Watching and hoping for the worms to turn

A YEAR after Labour's election defeat I still receive regular calls and letters from students and journalists asking if I believe it was 'the Sun Wot Won It]'. Of course, I never did. When, on Friday 10 April 1992, I launched my attack on the role played by the tabloid press in the last few days of the campaign, I was motivated by significant evidence that an alarming number of pundits and commentators had not read the tabloids during that period. As a result they were woefully ignorant of the complete picture when pontificating on the reasons for such an unexpected result.

Any sensible analysis of the result shows that we lost because we did not have the necessary trust of the key swing voters. But that is not to underestimate the role of the press. Dismayed and disgusted by the incompetence of the Tory campaign - about which they wrote with increasing irritation - the tabloids finally gave up in despair and, in a furious and concerted tirade against the Labour Party, did the job that they had scoffed at John Major and his party for not doing. The papers recognised their influence. As 50 per cent of the population of Basildon take the Sun, it doesn't require many Sun readers in that town to be marginally influenced by a constant diet of vitriol for it to have some effect on the result.

So I asserted, and still assert, that the press played its part. And I remain convinced that it played a more influential part than is healthy for a pluralistic democracy. Indeed, the nature of our press undermines that pluralism. That is why I decided to act. Although we should introduce strengthened monopoly powers over the ownership of newspapers, no political party should contemplate attempting to force changes in the editorial policies of individual papers. But we can use every means at our disposal to draw attention constantly to the present massive imbalance in favour of the Tories, in the hope that the general public will develop a greater understanding that, on most days of most weeks in most years, we see in operation the most politically biased press in the democratic world.

That is certainly the view shared by my counterparts in the Democratic Party in the United States. They readily concede that had they been forced to confront a press as consistently hostile as that encountered by Labour on this side of the Atlantic Bill Clinton would not have become President.

So, what of the subsequent 12 months? Initially, the debate on the nature and effect of our press engendered some interest. But the litany of government disasters soon took centre stage. There was hardly any post-election honeymoon. Instead, those papers that had pilloried the Labour Party were forced to witness Labour prophecy after Labour prophecy come true. How were they, having told the nation everything from the assertion that John Major was the new Messiah to the simple exhortation to 'give him the benefit of the doubt', then to respond to the debacle? After all, the nation did not need to be told by William Whitelaw that this was the worst year for any government in Britain since the last war. Nor could it have been surprised that Mr Major considered it the worst year of his life. The response from the press was the only one on offer. It turned on the Government.

However, the depth of its anger and frustration produced concerted and violent criticism beyond what might have been expected. Having attacked the Labour Party so vehemently over taxation, the papers were particularly angered by the Budget. The Sun (never far from the centre of events), having given us 'Nightmare on Kinnock Street' during the run-up to the General Election, greeted the 1993 tax-increasing Budget as 'Nightmare on Lamont Street'. The Daily Mail warned its readers just after Christmas that there was a 'Threat To Mortgage Tax Relief'. It was right. And after the Budget it made no attempt to disguise the pain. 'Lamont Timebomb - Chancellor lights fuse on tax package set to explode next year'.

It would be churlish not to recognise that, in the past year, all the national titles owned by Rupert Murdoch have been highly critical of the Government. Furthermore, there has been a willingness to give Labour some fair coverage, particularly in the Times and, quite often, the Sun. I sense that the Sun and, to a lesser extent, the News of the World, are still uncertain of their positioning, but have had no doubt that their readers would accept nothing but a full frontal attack on the Government's economic and political incompetence. While the Mirror Group, despite its upheavals, has continued to be fully supportive of Labour, the transfer of a number of significant Mirror journalists to Today has seen a clear shift in the stance of this Murdoch title. The difference seems to be that, in this case, the movement is deliberate and may well be permanent.

HOWEVER, I am under no illusion about the future. As always, it will be the broadcasters upon whom we will have to rely for fair and objective coverage as the next election approaches. I have little doubt that, no matter how the newspapers may behave now, they will revert to type once the reality of a change of government looms.

It is just possible that the odd broadsheet will retain some objectivity and one or two broadsheet editors will find it difficult to say anything complimentary about a prime minister for whom they clearly have a deep-seated contempt. That said, I remain convinced that the proprietorial and editorial commitment to permanent Tory government is so widespread and ingrained that almost nothing can hold them back from campaigning vigorously against Labour as soon as they believe they can begin to get away with it.

So as the election approaches, how will they justify their shift? Of course they will find strong reasons for voting against Labour. Just like 1992, the Government and the Tory tabloids will conspire to strike fear into the hearts of their readers. Difficult, you might suggest, after they have given the Government such a roasting. Not at all. Their response will be twofold. The Tories were - and are - pretty bad: that we acknowledge. But Labour will be far worse. And, furthermore, when the Government was really screwing up the economy and showing signs of potential disintegration, did we not give them hell? How can anyone say that we didn't hammer them when they deserved it? All that nonsense about unreasonable bias is simply Labour paranoia.

Well it isn't, and the history of press behaviour towards the Labour Party throughout this century shows it. Of course I may be wrong. The Sun may have decided to steer a moderate middle path. The Sunday Times may have abandoned any plans to produce 'in-depth' character assassinations of senior Labour figures. The Daily Mail may conclude that this government has broken so many promises on taxation that its readers should seriously consider the alternative.

But does anyone reading this seriously believe that all, or indeed any, of this will happen? As the months go by and we move from a post-election to a pre-election period, I will be watching closely. My fervent hope is that a good proportion of the British electorate will be doing the same.

David Hill is the Labour Party's director of communications.