Many people believe that whereas Tony Blair could once play the media like a fiddle, Gordon Brown is a ham-fisted amateur. There was much friendly laughter when, at the launch of his campaign in May, his face was obscured by teleprompter screens. This was supposed to indicate his rough-and-ready but essentially honest approach to politics.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that we have got the wrong end of the stick. Far from being a bumbler in media matters, Mr Brown is a consummate professional, in some ways superior to his predecessor. For whereas we all knew after a while that Mr Blair was a slick salesman whose goods were liable to fall apart, the genius of Mr Brown is that he has the press in his hand, and no one realises it.
Last week we had the worst banking crisis in living memory. Queues outside branches of Northern Rock invited comparisons with the Weimar Republic. If this had happened during Mr Blair's final days he would have been torn apart. The Daily Mail would have gone nuclear. As it was, Mr Brown largely escaped censure. It was the poor governor of the Bank of England and his hapless deputy who took most of the flak. Even Alastair Darling, who is little more than Mr Brown's bag carrier, was spared a drubbing.
A case could surely be made that Mr Brown bore responsibility for what happened. As Chancellor he was always happy to receive plaudits for Britain's outstanding economic performance, but when things go wrong it is never his fault. Did he not preside over a credit boom that partly contributed to the banking crisis? And was he not aware of Northern Rock's problems for a month without ensuring that they were addressed? Yet it was not Mr Brown who got the blame.
For a time, it seemed the Mail might slip its collar, comparing the queues last Monday to the events of Black Wednesday in September 1992, but it soon quietened down. Neither The Daily Telegraph nor the Daily Express was over impressed by Mr Brown, but they did not go wild. The Murdoch press, particularly The Sun, was keen to declare that things were under control, and that the Prime Minister was not at fault. The FT was the FT. The Independent and The Guardian were not inclined to blame the former Chancellor. In fact, at the height of the crisis, The Guardian covered most of its front page with a story, based on a poll, that suggested that David Cameron is a loser.
Why did Mr Brown largely get off? Every newspaper had different motivations. Some are relieved that we have a strong new leader, and do not want to do him down. One or two may have genuinely convinced themselves that he did not have a case to answer. I also suspect that Mr Brown's adept media boys may have pointed some journalists in the direction of the Bank of England. They're the culprits! There they go! Then there are Mr Cameron's difficulties. The weaker the Tory leader looks, the less inclined some newspapers are to stir it up with Gordon.
There is a further explanation, to do with what I was saying about Mr Brown's genius with the media. He has spent years stroking proprietors and editors. He has hobnobbed with Rupert Murdoch – for example, at the knees-up of world leaders at Davos early this year. He has nurtured Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun. Much has been written about his warm relations with Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. In public, Mr Brown may seem an oddball – though doesn't he look sleeker and prime ministerial now? – but in private he can be charming and appear genuinely interested in other people's ideas.
Of course Mr Blair worked on proprietors and editors. He latched on to Rupert Murdoch. At one stage he was all over Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Express titles. If Piers Morgan is to be believed, as editor of the Daily Mirror he virtually lived at Number 10. Nonetheless, Mr Blair was not good at keeping on reasonable terms with his critics. For example, when the Mail turned against him, Mr Blair, no doubt encouraged by the instinctively pugilistic Alastair Campbell, quickly gave up on the paper. The Mail would have never loved him, but it might have hated him less. By contrast, Mr Brown is able to engage and maintain cordial relations with his critics.
Last week, Mr Brown's assiduous cultivation of the press paid dividends. He was let off where Tony Blair would have been bound, gagged and defenestrated, at any rate by the right-wing. Of course, I do not say that he will always be spared. If there are too many crises – and there have been a surprising number since he took over – I daresay he will get a rougher ride. If the Tory newspapers admired David Cameron more, they would be less ready to forgive the Prime Minister. Anything can happen in politics, but for the moment Gordon Brown's amazing honeymoon with the media goes on.
These sister papers should not marry
One story you will not have seen in MediaGuardian concerns goings-on at 'The Guardian' and 'The Observer'. As I wrote here a little over two months ago, there have been discussions about turning 'The Observer' into a seven-day version of its daily sister paper. The 'Evening Standard' has even suggested that Roger Alton, 'Observer' editor, may be considering his position. He denies this.
The rationale for making 'The Observer' into some sort of Sunday version of 'The Guardian' is that it is losing a good deal of money. Integrating some departments would reduce losses. A similar thought process has been going on at the 'Telegraph' papers, where there appear to be plans afoot (though they are denied) to make the Sunday title closer to the Daily one.
The contrary case is that making 'The Observer' into a seventh day 'Guardian' would weaken it. I would like to know of a successful instance in this country of a Sunday paper being successfully merged with its daily stablemate. Almost invariably, the process, having been embarked upon, is reversed. Of course, some resources, such as foreign correspondents, can be shared. But if it is to punch its weight in a very competitive market, a Sunday title needs its own editor and staff.
One can understand why the Guardian Media Group should be concerned by losses at 'The Observer', but I hope it keeps it separate. In 1993, Newspaper Publishing, then owner of 'The Independent', almost acquired 'The Observer' with the idea of merging it with the 'Independent on Sunday'. At the last moment 'The Guardian' bought the paper with the assurance of keeping it alive as a separate title. It must not break this pledge.Reuse content