NO-HEADLINE

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The Independent Online
With the socialist spectre banished, we have entered an era characterised by apolitical newspaper proprietors who are happy to proclaim the virtues - and turn a blind eye to the defects - of anyone seeking the keys to Number 10 who swears not to block the expansion of their multimedia empires.

Has Blairmania gone a teeny bit too far? Yes, obviously, but it was more than a teeny bit rich of The Observer, of all papers, to pose that question on a recent billboard poster. Britain's oldest Sunday newspaper metamorphosed into a lovestruck teenybopper when Tony Blair secured his landslide election victory.

The slogan "The paper for the new era" was instantly emblazoned across the masthead. Then, a week later, we got "Goodbye Xenophobia!" splashed in giant type across the front page, puffing out of all proportion a fairly bland interview with the new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

Then, when that leading Cabinet minister did something truly newsworthy - leave his wife for his lover - The Observer alone relegated the story to a brief inside mention. Nothing, it seemed, was to be done to dispel the myth that we had, indeed, entered a glorious new era.

Such grovelling sycophancy got to the paper's esteemed columnist Richard Ingrams, who fired off a letter to The Observer's editor, Will Hutton, expressing the hope that he would soon recover from his post-election euphoria.

The editor of The Oldie will, doubtless, be pleased to learn that the author of The State We're In has recovered his almost legendary critical faculties. Now, hardly a week goes by when Hutton isn't lamenting in print New Labour's abject failure to address the appalling inequalities of wealth and power in post-Thatcherite Britain. The Observer editor told the same tale of woe recently to Robert Reich, Clinton's former Labor Secretary, when the latter visited Whitehall for a gabfest with Gordon Brown.

So, Will is well again. I wish I could say the same about Britain's two top-selling tabloids, but The Sun and The Mirror are obviously still suffering badly from Blairmania. Just look at how the red-tops covered the sweeping changes in the National Health Service last week. The Sun hailed the reform package as "the biggest shake-up in the NHS's history" and them, bizarrely, devoted less than 300 words to the subject.

The Mirror found a lot more space, running a four-page "NHS special" on the contents of the White Paper. But its joyful little supplement left a lot to be desired by those of us who still believe in the old dictum that the proper relationship between the press and the government should be that of a dog and a lamp-post.

The front page consisted of an open letter to readers from both the PM and Health Secretary Frank Dobson whilst the inside spread was a straight lift from a Department of Health leaflet about the reforms. The back page - headlined "Britain's beloved NHS is reborn" - was penned by the Mirror's medical correspondent Jill Palmer, but it read like a ministerial speech. Not really surprising, since Ms Palmer has ghost-written articles for the health minister Tessa Jowell.

To be fair, she wasn't the only one to heap praise on the proposed changes last week. The proposals were widely acclaimed. Still, they are obviously no magic panacea for the profound problems besetting the National Health Service on the cusp of a new millennium.

Even if they were, The Mirror's failure to maintain a healthy distance from the Department of Health and 10 Downing Street is symptomatic of a highly worrying development in the British press. Put bluntly, the Tory press appears to have been replaced by the Tony press.

After six months in office, Fleet Street's love affair with New Labour shows no signs of wilting. The popular press gave the government an easier ride on both the Formula 1 fiasco and the lone-parent benefits controversy than it deserved.

Why aren't we being better served? Some people might think that Blairmania in the media is all down to the dark arts of Downing Street press spokesman Alistair Campbell and New Labour's smart team of spin doctors at Millbank. A few especially naive souls might even imagine that it signals a genuine conversion by Britain's leading press barons to what Blair calls social- ism.

Now, it could be that that charming little hyphen makes all the difference to the likes of Lord Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch, two characters who aided and abetted Margaret Thatcher in her mission to ensure that the British people would never again have a chance to vote for anything remotely resembling socialism (without the hyphen).

But what seems more plausible is that, with the socialist spectre banished from the British political landscape, we have entered a new era characterised by essentially apolitical national newspaper proprietors who are perfectly happy to proclaim the shining virtues - and turn a blind eye to the disturbing defects - of anyone seeking the keys to Number 10 who dutifully swears not to block the steady expansion of their multimedia empires.

Blairmania in the British press is explained by the factor which determines most developments in modern history - lust for wealth and/or power. Tony Blair has entered into an unwritten pact with Britain's leading press barons: if they keep him in power, he'll make sure they get wealthier and wealthier.

The tragedy for our Tony - or, rather, the people who put him into office - is that the New Labour leader has attained only an illusion of power. Even the dogs in the street know that the owner of The Sun and not the Chancellor of the Exchequer will decide the most critical issue in Britain's post-war history - when, or if, this country ever signs up to the single currency.

Murdoch and Rothermere are the masters now. It is these two tycoons - neither of whom chooses to live in this little fantasy island - who will decide just how long Blairmania lasts.

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