Prescott has been croqueted with his own conceits

On The Press: All's fair in the Deputy Prime Minister's fisticuffs with the media
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The Independent Online

Prescott does not like the media, and you might reasonably think he has no cause to. The week has been surreal. The extent of the Deputy Prime Minister's sin was to be caught playing croquet during an away day; the most sensational consequence, the abandonment of his tied cottage. In between, a million printed and spoken media words. The politics we deserve? The press we deserve?

As The Independent rightly pointed out: "Playing croquet on a Thursday afternoon is not a capital crime." (John Reid may well want to alter that.) Nor is taking part in an away day. Journalists have them, as do academics. They are often held in pleasant places with gardens, and participants often take a stroll. So what's the scandal?

The front-page picture of Dorneywood in The Mail on Sunday showed Prescott with mallet in hand as the Prime Minister was flying to Washington. This was taken soon after a reshuffle that left Prescott with little but his title, salary and country house. An image that could have been uncontroversial was quickly seen as the picture that symbolised the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister.

Or seen so by some. Richard Littlejohn, the Daily Mail's ranter in chief, wrote: "The moment I saw those pictures of Two Jags on the croquet lawn at Dorneywood I knew nothing else was going to upset me all day ... Photos of Two Jags leaning on a croquet mallet topped even those of him hoisting Tracey Temple across his shoulders at the office knees-up."

A little over the top, but no more so than Deborah Orr in The Independent, writing of the "newsprint-led culture of sniggering, childish, misogynistic idiocy" that allowed Prescott to cast himself as a victim of a cynical campaign against him. His "defiant and sulky defence of his right to pat bottoms and hump secretaries" was contemptible.

The Guardian said next day: "Mr Prescott has become the butt of unhappiness with a Government that is seen as hollow, more or less intact on the outside but increasingly directionless within." The Dorneywood pictures summed that up.

Prescott allowed Michael White of The Guardian to travel with him on a birthday train journey to Worksop. The "exclusive" interview broke the news of his decision to pull out of Dorneywood. The following day The Independent's Colin Brown, Prescott's biographer, reported in another "exclusive" interview that the Deputy Prime Minister was reasserting his authority over the cabinet committees he chaired. Prescott believed the Dorneywood croquet row was "subsiding".

There was no evidence for this, and the artificial divide between the politicians and the rest was made clear on BBC2's Newsnight by the Paxman eyebrow. The Labour MP Stephen Pound, so recently a fierce critic of Prescott, suggested that the brave and dignified decision to move out of Dorneywood "drew a line" under the public debate over the job-free salary and perks. Politicians think you can draw lines and separate issues, but the public are influenced by overall impressions, atmospheres and stenches.

Prescott placed himself in the spotlight by becoming a politician and by his own actions and conceits. Down the years he's played it rough with the best of them. He ended up with all the trappings of power and he has sometimes put on airs. Now it is all coming to an end, he blames the media.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield