Stephen Glover: Press battle lines are reset – but who gets the BBC's vote?
Monday 12 April 2010
From the moment he was elected Tory leader in December 2005, David Cameron developed a new media strategy.
After the Conservative defeat earlier that year – remember he had largely written the party's manifesto – he had formed the view that the Tories would find it difficult to win an election in the teeth of opposition from the left-wing media. They had had a torrid time during the campaign over immigration.
So the laborious and sometimes comically transparent rebranding of the Tory party was aimed not only at middle-ground voters. It was important to come to an accommodation with those parts of the media with anti-Tory instincts if the middle ground was to be won over. That meant principally the all-powerful BBC, as well as its in-house journal, The Guardian, and, to a lesser extent, The Independent. The Daily Mirror was beyond the scope of persuasion, but outside its ghetto of Labour-supporting readers it exercises little influence.
Hence Mr Cameron's shameless flirtation with Polly Toynbee and her newspaper, The Guardian, which for a time became almost fond of him. This was bound to annoy the Tories' traditional supporters, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, which were in any case annoyed by lots of other things, not least Mr Cameron's disinclination to discuss immigration, a decision calculated to avoid aggravating the people he was now trying to appease.
The Tory leader always knew The Guardian would sooner or later turn against him; it was a question of when. The paper (which, fortuitously for Mr Cameron, did not much like Gordon Brown) remained not unfriendly until, with the election approaching, it opened hostilities against Lord Ashcroft, the Tory's controversial billionaire deputy chairman, and Andy Coulson, the party's equally controversial communications chief who had presided over some very suspect practices in his former job as editor of the News of the World.
Though the Mail and Telegraph continued to grumble about Mr Cameron, he calculated, rightly as it is turning out, that they would come back fully on board once the election campaign got underway. Last autumn, some dark deal was done with Rupert Murdoch's Sun, the true nature of which we may not know for several years, if then. The paper renounced New Labour after 13 years' support, and embraced the Tories.
Arguably this was Mr Cameron's biggest mistake in what has generally been a successful strategy. The Sun's crude championing of the Tories, and its brutal treatment of its former New Labour friends, may have awakened atavistic memories in leftist minds, for some of whom Mr Murdoch remains the incarnation of evil. To a surprising extent old battle lines have been redrawn.
Indeed it is remarkable how familiar everything seems. Judging by the coverage of the last week, the Daily Telegraph has reprised its traditional role of Tory advocate, while the Daily Mail has been producing one anti-Labour splash after another, and no doubt has more up its sleeve. The Daily Express joins in with what it can muster. For its part, The Guardian has discovered that Mr Brown is a much better leader than it once thought, while Mr Cameron has turned out to be a sad disappointment. The Daily Mirror continues to attack him day-in, day-out, for being rich and posh. Only The Times, The Independent and, I suppose, the Financial Times maintain the appearance of being non-partisan, though we will see how long that will last.
But although newspapers may be said to have taken up their old positions, the same cannot yet be said of the BBC. Has Mr Cameron's long cultivation of the left-wing media paid off? If so, it will be a rich reward. The BBC will probably play a more important part in this election than ever before. It is devoting an unprecedented amount of airtime to the campaign – possibly more than most people want. Sky News offers brilliant coverage on the hustings, but has only a small audience, while ITV is not the force it was. I would not take the influence of the blogosphere too seriously. Newspapers remain powerful, and what they have lost in sales they may make up in terms of impact on the web. All in all, though, the BBC is a vital arena, probably more so than ever.
Some readers may dispute my contention that in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections the Corporation inclined towards New Labour. I accept, of course, that it is not a uniform organism with a directing brain. It naturally leans away from the Tories, not because its management wants it that way – though, in this instance, it might prefer a Labour victory as the Conservatives are fingering their scalpels with an eye to cuts – but because so few of its senior journalists are Tory. However hard they might try – and some of them may not always try very hard – it is not humanly possible to be entirely even-handed.
Except, perhaps, when you have a tired government and an unpopular Prime Minister and a Tory party that seems fresh, and liberal on social issues. In-house journal though it is, The Guardian may not have had the time to construct a case against the Tory leader that will resonate in BBC minds. On the other hand, old feelings run deep, and one can't rule out a reversion to former habits.
So far I have seen very little evidence of anti-Tory bias on the BBC. If anything, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has the most to complain about, not on grounds of bias, but simply because he is so often written out of the script.
The one example of anti-Tory bias I have spotted – and it may have been accidental rather than intentional – was last Thursday on BBC2's Newsnight which gave the floor to Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to explain why the Tories' plans to cut National Insurance were misguided before inviting Dragons' Den millionaire entrepreneur James Caan to agree with him.
Needless to say, I am in favour of giving the Tories as hard a time as Labour or the Lib Dems, and the BBC can no doubt be counted on to do that. Will it go further if the prospect of an outright Conservative victory looms? I should be quite surprised if it did. But if the Tories do win they are most unlikely to have the happy honeymoon with the non-Conservative media which New Labour enjoyed with most newspapers from 1997 until the build-up to the Iraq war. Politics are going to become highly disputatious again, and David Cameron's accommodation with the left-wing media will almost certainly prove short-lived.
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