Stephen Glover on The Press

Gordon tries to woo the press, but may find himself left at the altar
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Much ink has been spilt in the Press this past week about Gordon Brown's tribulations, but I have seen no reference to an extraordinary fact I mentioned in my last column. This is that nine days ago the Prime Minister attended the wedding in Glasgow of Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group.

Think about it for a moment. Mr Brown had returned only hours earlier from his gruelling, and seemingly not much noticed, visit to the United States. He was facing a backbench rebellion over the abolition of the 10p tax rate that in the view of one or two commentators threatened his very survival as Prime Minister. Yet he found time to hop on a plane to Glasgow, which is a fair way from his own home in North Queensferry.

Perhaps he was drawn to the festivities on account of his old acquaintance with the Telegraph's boss. The two of them came across each other some years ago when Mr MacLennan was running the Mirror Group's operations in Scotland. But they are far from bosom pals. One can see it would do no harm to Mr MacLennan, in the eyes of the world and of his employers, the Barclay Brothers, to have the Prime Minister at his nuptials, but it is less obvious why a jet-lagged and seriously harried Mr Brown should have taken the trouble to be there.

Unless we see it in the context of his assiduous wooing of the Tory Press. Far more than was the case with Tony Blair, his successor has gone out of his way to be on reasonable terms with The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He frequently meets Paul Dacre, the Mail's editor, to whom he would appear to be much closer than he is to Mr MacLennan. He understands perfectly well that both papers will criticize him, and that neither is ever going to support him at an election, but he hopes they won't be at his throat.

Which newspapers have been hardest on him during his recent difficulties? The Mail has scarcely spared him. Some of its columnists, who have a much freer rein than is generally believed, plainly detest him. (I should declare an interest as a Mail columnist.) But the paper's attitude, as expressed in its leaders and its usually restrained presentation of anti-Brown stories, is not one of hurricane-force opposition, as was the case with Mr Blair. The same might be said of the Telegraph, which admittedly never hated Mr Blair to the same degree. It has some time for Mr Brown, though several of its columnists do not.

The newspapers which have been toughest on the Prime Minister are those that were once in the vanguard of New Labour. "Brown Wednesday" yelled the Times' splash headline last week after the climbdown on the 10p tax rate. The paper has become very anti-Brown. So has the Financial Times, which also used to cuddle up to Mr Blair. "Brown weakened by 10p tax climbdown" was its splash headline on the same day. A couple of weeks ago we had the even more straight-talking "Voters lose confidence in Brown's abilities."

Of course when a prime minister is bleeding, and the economy possibly collapsing, newspapers are apt to forget their political affiliations as they work themselves up into a state of ecstasy at the prospect of Armageddon. How we journalists crave disaster. But the hostility of The Times and Financial Times cannot be understood simply in these terms. They don't like Mr Brown. The Guardian, though less aggressive, is hardly friendly, and makes little attempt to portray his difficulties in a sympathetic light. The same might be said of The Independent, though as always it remains well-mannered.

In other words, setting aside the Daily Mirror, though it was shaken by the abolition of the 10p tax rate for obvious reasons, there is no longer a cluster of dependably pro-New Labour titles. Meanwhile the papers which one might have expected to be hardest on Mr Brown – the Mail and the Telegraph – are so far reluctant to put the boot in. The Sun, not strictly a Tory paper, finds itself in similar position. Unlike its sister title The Times, it has not yet turned on Mr Brown, and even defended his tax climbdown. One senses, though, that its support for the Prime Minister is wearing thin.

Last Friday's YouGov poll gave the Tories an 18-point lead. If other polls were to reflect the same sort of Conservative advantage over a prolonged period, could the Mail, Telegraph and Sun continue to spare Mr Brown the full force of their opposition? Of course not. Their anti-Labour readers, increasingly buffeted by recession, would not stand for it. All the weddings and all the friendships in the world could then not save the Prime Minister. He would face an almost uniformly hostile Press, deserted alike by former New Labour friends and new found Tory ones.

Permanent revolution at 'Telegraph'

Events at The Daily Telegraph are following the path of most revolutions. Just when one thinks that the blood-letting has finally ceased, and people can return to tilling their fields and growing their crops, another episode erupts, as bewildering as the last.

Among recent sackings are Sarah Womack, the social affairs correspondent, and Jonathan Petre, the religious affairs correspondent, who happens to be her partner. Last week the highly regarded arts correspondent, Nigel Reynolds, was led off to the guillotine.

What is going on? There seems to be a culture clash between the paper's recently acquired news executives, often hailing from The Daily Mail, and the paper's long-serving specialists. Management also appears to feel some specialists are concentrating on the wrong things. Money is also an issue.

Thus Sarah Womack's and Jonathan Petre's jobs have been amalgamated, and for the first time in ages The Telegraph does not have a dedicated religious affairs correspondent. I can remember when it was filled by a Canon of the Church of England. In deference to the spirit of the age, a showbiz editor has been appointed. Will there be another arts correspondent? I certainly hope so.

One wonders whether the revolution will ever stop. Meanwhile, I am sorry to learn that Telegraph columnist Rachel Sylvester is going off to The Times. I do not know her, but she is one of the best informed chroniclers of New Labour, and very readable. While so many people are being thrown overboard, she is one whom The Telegraph should have moved heaven and earth to keep.

On the subject of the Telegraph Media Group, readers might like to know that Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay have discontinued their legal complaint against this newspaper and myself following my column last week. Good news, I think.