The Labour donor scandal began in a familiar way in the pages of the Mail on Sunday. The paper has been the launch-pad of many deadly anti-Labour stories, often under the by-line of Simon Walters, its political editor. It was the Mail on Sunday that gave us "Cheriegate" and John Prescott playing croquet. Eight days ago the by-line was Jonathan Oliver's, the paper's deputy political editor, and his piece had the essential facts.
The next day the dailies followed up, again in time-honoured fashion, though only The Times and The Sun gave it front-page treatment. BBC Radio 4's Today programme ran an item outside its prime 8.10am slot. The media response was enough to convince the Government that Peter Watt, Labour's general secretary, should be sacrificed, and spirited away to a salt-mine where he could not be cross-examined by the Press.
So far the story had followed a familiar pattern. It now began to develop in novel ways. It has been traditional in respect of Labour sleaze stories for the Blair-hating Daily Mail to be at the front of the pack, with the liberal newspapers and the BBC often bringing up the rear, taking a more generous view of apparent shortcomings.
To a significant degree the habitual roles were reversed. It was not the Mail but the BBC, and its political editor, Nick Robinson, that led the charge in bulletin after bulletin. I don't suggest he is anti-Labour or anti-Brown, but no one could suppose he harbours a secret tendresse for the party, as some of us imagined of his predecessor, Andrew Marr.
It was not only the BBC. From Tuesday The Guardian "splashed" with the story every day until by Friday all typographical restraint had been abandoned. The Independent, which often chooses not to run with the pack, splashed twice on the scandal. Even the Daily Mirror, normally doggedly pro-Labour, scarcely underplayed the Government's difficulties.
Among Right-wing titles, the Mail was far from quiescent, but it did its best to spare Mr Brown in the line of fire. The Telegraph did not display any of the Brownite sympathies I have recently remarked upon. The Times occasionally lost interest in the story. The Sun was quite exercised.
Whatever slight indulgence Mr Brown may be granted in parts of the Right-wing Press was more than cancelled by a ferocity in the liberal media which Mr Blair was rarely forced to endure, save perhaps over the Iraq war. (The Prime Minister may reflect that, as well as being editor of the Mail, his supposed admirer, Paul Dacre, is editor-in-chief of the Mail on Sunday, which sent the original hare running.) If last week offers any guide to the future, Mr Brown may suffer the kind of across-the-board disapprobation to which John Major was exposed.
There are several causes. The relative absence of convinced Brownites in the liberal media; the alleged cack-handedness of his media team; the rise of a plausible Tory leader; and the accident-prone nature of Mr Brown's administration. Things can change quickly in politics the events of the past few weeks remind us of that but the gloomy lesson that Mr Brown might draw is that he will face a more uniformly hostile media than ever did Tony Blair.
The bald truth about sketch writers
Twenty five years ago I briefly wrote the Parliamentary sketch for The Daily Telegraph, and fell in with my opposite number on The Guardian, Michael White. We used to write our pieces in the library, and Michael would figuratively speaking, because even then he was bald tear out his hair in anguish.
Despite his great expertise in these matters, he was surely wrong last week to chide Simon Carr, The Independent's sketchwriter, in his blog for being a "political activist". Sketch writers, he asserted, used to be "gentler shades."
Really? Colin Welch of the Telegraph, whom Michael cites to support his argument, was a passionate libertarian. The great Frank Johnson was a devoted Thatcherite. So was the Mail's Andrew Alexander. Michael, then as now, was himself not without strong political views. Perhaps the truth is simply that he does not like Mr Carr's.
'Telegraph' traditions live on
Bill Deedes' memorial service at the Guards Chapel in London last Monday was a moving occasion. He stood for a self-deprecating and eccentric England that is almost dead. As The Daily Telegraph's editor for 12 years, and a writer for the paper spanning seven decades, he epitomised the paper's virtues, as well as its vices.
Many of those present loved the old Telegraph. I suppose most of them think the present paper, owned by the Barclays, managed by Murdoch MacLennan, and edited by Will Lewis, has rejected its traditional values, and that, stuffed as it is with former Daily Mail executives, it increasingly resembles the Mail in tone and content without having the saving grace of being original.
A long-serving former employee of the Telegraph suggested to me that Bill shared this view. I suspect he did. It is what almost all old Telegraph people think. Observing Mr MacLennan and Mr Lewis and Aidan Barclay, the paper's chairman, at the memorial service, it was certainly difficult to believe they understand, or even like very much, the paper they have captured. They may have no great feeling for its readers.
And yet I can't help thinking that the old Telegraph culture is stronger than its critics suppose. I was struck the other day that the paper had three of its reporters kicked out of Pakistan. If the Telegraph had three journalists in that country, it can't be doing everything wrong.
Those who direct the paper may be uneasy with its past. But in the foreign and obituary and comment and even the news pages, there remain journalists who served the old Telegraph, and believe it had a pretty good model of its own. There has been a revolution at the top, but not yet throughout the engine room, which is why The Daily Telegraph remains truer to itself than many think.Reuse content