Stephen Glover on the Press

Good 'Times' for Blair, but not for readers expecting fair reporting
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The Independent Online

Say what you like about Rupert Murdoch, he does not usually renege on his deals. Two weeks ago, The Sun came out for New Labour, as most of us had predicted it would. Since then, the paper has been offering spirited support, even lashing out at Michael Howard, a former friend. But some people may not have noticed the equally sterling efforts of Mr Murdoch's other daily newspaper, The Times, on Tony Blair's behalf. This support goes back months, if not years, but over recent weeks the paper has pushed the boat out still further.

On Thursday, the front pages of all editions of most newspapers were covered with stories about Lord Goldsmith's legal advice, the summary of which had been leaked to Channel Four news. There were three exceptions: The Times; The Sun; and the Daily Mirror. Almost unbelievably, throughout most editions, The Times demoted the story to page two, where it ran under a headline that will have brought a flush of pleasure to Mr Blair's face: "Leak of Iraq war letter 'shows attack was legal'." The front page was largely given over to an admission by Mr Blair that "at the moment", entry to the euro "doesn't look very likely". The Times, like The Sun, is anti-euro. Mr Blair made his remarks on Sky (also controlled by Mr Murdoch), perhaps in the hope he might distract attention from Lord Goldsmith's advice.

In its final edition, no doubt influenced by other newspapers, The Times did promote Iraq to the front page, while retaining a good deal of stuff in the story about the euro and a new opinion poll unfavourable to the Tories. Slightly expanded coverage inside the paper appeared under the same earlier headline that will have so pleased the Prime Minister. The point is that the mind-set of The Times is such that an explosive story that was injurious to New Labour was first relegated to page two, and presented under a headline calculated not to rock the boat, before being grudgingly put on the front for the benefit of a few readers in central London. Meanwhile, The Sun chose the happy expedient of ignoring Lord Goldsmith and his advice, and ran a leader criticising Mr Howard for calling Mr Blair a liar.

Perhaps we should not get too worked up by The Sun, which has consistently chosen not to report news that might weaken the case for the war against Iraq. The Times, though, is another matter. Despite everything that has happened to the paper since Mr Murdoch acquired it 24 years ago, it is still The Times, and even now its readers would surely hope for balanced reporting. Since at least 40 per cent of them are thought likely to vote Tory this week, one would also imagine that a relentlessly pro-Labour and anti-Tory agenda might not be universally popular. Nonetheless, during the past few weeks there has been a string of tendentious stories, very few of which have been followed up by the rest of the Press.

Let me cite a few recent examples almost at random. On 21 April, the paper led with an unfriendly story by Andrew Pierce implying skulduggery under the headline "Secret loans bolster £16m Tory election campaign". Two days later, the front-page splash alleged that the Tories were sending out contradictory messages over immigration. In the same issue, Tom Baldwin, a notoriously pro-Labour journalist who is close to Alastair Campbell, penned a benign piece about his favourite party. On Tuesday, The Times' splash was about electoral fraud, and, unsurprisingly, the paper dug up a Tory Asian councillor as its chief suspect. The next day, an inside piece by Mr Baldwin and David Charter alleged that Mark Textor, the business partner of Lynton Crosby - the Australian Tory campaign director - had a somewhat dodgy past. On Friday, a front-page picture of Baroness Thatcher was cross-referenced to a page-two story by Mr Pierce informing us that she had despaired of the Conservatives and was leaving the country. This was sourced to an unidentified "close friend", and might have made a passable item in Mr Pierce's gossip column.

My point is not that there was no truth in any of these anti-Tory pieces, only that their frequency, as well as their prominence, reflect a deliberate policy. I accept that The Times' columnists are mostly free-thinking, with one or two of them taking an anti-Labour line. It is in the news pages, and less obviously in the leader column, that the dice are so loaded in favour of New Labour. Here it is difficult not to suspect the hand of Mr Blair's propaganda chief, Mr Campbell, a Times sports columnist whose memoirs are destined for lucrative serialisation in the pages of the newspaper. Almost invariably whenever you spot Mr Baldwin's by-line, and often when you see Mr Pierce's, you will find a story that is either helpful to New Labour or harmful to the Tories.

Some people may not be very shocked by this. After all, the Daily Mail (for which, I should declare, I write a column) lobs grenades in Mr Blair's direction every day of the week. Why should The Times not do the opposite? My answer is that it does not have the reputation of being a partisan newspaper. It is The Times of London, and should tower above the petty squabbles of party politics. Even now it presents itself to the world and its readers as even-handed and fair. Robert Thomson, its editor, boasts that he has never consulted Mr Murdoch about a story in the following day's newspaper. Well, perhaps, yet in its way and by its own means, The Times is as devoted to the re-election of New Labour as is its sister paper, The Sun. The only difference is that most people have not woken up to this fact.

Much has been written about the debt that Mr Blair owes Gordon Brown for the help he has received during the election campaign, most recently in respect of Lord Goldsmith's legal advice. There is another debt that will have to be called in one day. Mr Murdoch will expect some pay back for having put his two daily newspapers so generously at the disposal of Mr Blair. As I wrote last week, Mr Murdoch is eyeing up the Financial Times. Perhaps, contrary to what I suggested, he hopes that he will be able to hang on to The Times if he acquires the FT, and perhaps he will look to a Labour government to lend him a hand. If not, there will be some other favour he will expect, some little douceur, for having helped Mr Blair in his hour of need.