Donald Trelford: British newspapers killed GordonBrown's image relaunch at birth

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The Independent Online

A surprising fact: in its first year the Government of Gordon Brown spent more money on political advertising and information services, sometimes known as spin-doctoring, than Tony Blair's did in any 12 months, even at the time of general elections or when Alastair Campbell was in his prime.

As he surveys the wreckage of his so-called relaunch, with the Conservatives still 20 points ahead in the opinion polls, Mr Brown must wonder if he is getting value for money.

As far as the press was concerned, the relaunch was dead in the water before it had even been announced. It didn't help that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, should command front-page headlines over the previous weekend by saying that the crisis in the economy was the worst for 60 years. Nor did the leaking of a memo by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, that the credit crunch would send crime soaring. Even despite these own goals, however, for which the press can hardly be blamed, and no matter what new policies he revealed, Mr Brown never really stood a chance of persuading the media that his political fortunes could be revived.

That simply isn't the story the press wants to hear or that it thinks the public wants to hear. It won't sell. The papers are obsessed with the credit crunch and its effect on their readers and what they see as an inevitable slide into recession. In this scenario they have cast the lugubrious double act of Brown and Darling as the villains who got us into this mess, not the heroes who will ride to our rescue, and it is hard to see how the unfortunate pair can get out of this. The problem was highlighted by Mary Riddell in The Daily Telegraph: "Charisma, commitment and credo have rarely been more vital, yet while it's carnival time in the US, British politics has the bravura of a crotchety game of ludo."

The curiously muted way in which the new measures were presented suggests that the Government was fully aware that the press would not be wowed by them. As one journalist put it: "On ringing Downing ask where and when we could witness the relaunch, we were told: 'It's not going to be open to journalists.'" Mr Brown himself made no big speech, Barack Obama-style; instead, he allowed himself to be filmed in a flat in west London and hoped that the facts would speak for themselves. Darling and Hazel Blears, neither of whom can be called God's gift to public relations, were left to fend off questions on television.

The Government's gloomy expectations were quickly realised. The Daily Mail summed up the general press reaction: "Too little, too late to halt the slide." Even the Government's trump card, the suspension of stamp duty, for which some papers had been pressing for months, was greeted with a splash headline: "Stamp duty cut doomed to fail." The Guardian said it "will have no more effect than King Canute's command to the tides". A business writer said: "The measure will be about as useful as buying a chocolate fireguard for your new home, in the unlikely event of you actually acquiring one."

By Friday, three days after the so-called relaunch, this paper carried the headline: "Brown will be ousted in months."

The Cabinet's tactic or hope, presumably, was that it would get its message across over the heads of the media and that voters (and members of its own party, whose conference falls later this month) would judge the new measures by the relief they brought to households. One cannot help feeling some sympathy for the Government's public relations plight, even if it has brought much of this on itself by "spinning" the news so blatantly and so deviously over the past 11 years. But when a government believes it cannot trust the media to present basic facts fairly on such serious matters, or without turning every crisis into a popularity or beauty contest, something has clearly gone badly wrong.

A foreign friend said to me recently after reading the British papers: "I have the impression that your editors are more powerful than your politicians." In some cases that may be true. The editors of the Daily Mail and The Sun (through the Murdoch connection) have more power to set the political agenda or influence public opinion than any minister and probably the Prime Minister too. I wonder if that is a healthy situation for a democracy. Whether it is or not, I suspect that nothing much can be done about it, and for the same reason – because the newspapers have the power to destroy any government that dared to take them on.

Donald Trelford was editor of 'The Observer', 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor in Journalism Studies at Sheffield University. Stephen Glover returns next week

Colin Myler, the editor of the News of the World, was understandably less than elated by my suggestion last week that James Murdoch might have sacked him over the Max Mosley case.

I wasn't actually advocating his dismissal: I was saying that it might have looked like a smart move by the younger Murdoch to show that he was his own man.

We received a letter about the article that may cheer Mr Myler up: it would certainly appeal to his readers. It's about brothels. In the Mosley case, the News of the World might have been allowed a public interest defence to the invasion of privacy if it could have proved any illegality in Mosley's conduct. Had the premises been a brothel within the meaning of the act, I suggested, that might have justified the publication.

Not so, says Stephen Paterson, from Colwyn Bay in Wales. "The legal definition of a brothel is very much wider than most people realise. No money or benefits have to change hands...The offences lie neither in being a prostitute nor a client within a brothel, but in knowingly owning, managing or assisting in the management of one." He goes on to quote a landmark judgment: "To constitute a brothel it is not essential to show that premises are in fact used for the purpose of prostitution which involves payment for services rendered. A brothel is also constituted where the women (for there must be more than one woman) do not charge for sexual intercourse...It is sufficient to prove that more than one woman offers herself as a participant in physical acts of indecency for the sexual gratification of men...An element of reward is not required, nor is sexual intercourse. Two women being lewd with a man would constitute a brothel."

Mr Paterson's conclusion is "that the bulk of the UK housing stock consists of brothels, together with almost all hotels and guest houses, and that to fail to own or manage their homes is the only way for the bulk of the population to remain within the law."

My favourite headline was in the Daily Mail about the "Large Hadron Collider", the giant atom-smasher designed to discover the secrets of the universe, that will be switched on near Geneva this week: "Are we all going to die next Wednesday?" Can't wait for the answer.