Stephen Glover on The Press

Why can't the news media treat Blunkett like any other politician?
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The Independent Online

One might suppose from the warm reception the programme enjoyed that it is now open season to attack Mr Blunkett, and whatever protection his blindness might once have given him has been swept away. Yet, last Thursday, an important story emerged about the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that was ignored by much of the press. Mr Blunkett admitted that he had bought a 3 per cent shareholding in a company called DNA Bioscience, which is about to float on the stock market. The purchase is controversial, as DNA Bioscience is seeking contracts within the department he runs.

As something of a connoisseur of New Labour scandals over the years, I immediately ranked this story in the category of potentially serious ones. Of course, I do not know whether he has done anything wrong, but there is a case to be answered. Mr Blunkett became a director of DNA Bioscience for two weeks before the election, and on 21 April bought 12 shares at a cost of £15,000. On his resignation from the company on 6 May to take up ministerial office once more, he transferred the shares into a trust set up for his two sons. DNA Bioscience is run by relatives of Tariq Siddiqi, the businessman who introduced Mr Blunkett to his most recent girlfriend, Sally Anderson. The company has been in talks to secure a contract to conduct paternity tests for the Child Support Agency, for which Mr Blunkett has ministerial responsibility. It also carried out work for the Immigration Service last October while Mr Blunkett was Home Secretary.

Fishy? Mr Blunkett says that he has declared the shares to Sir Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary in his department, and he denies breaking the Ministerial Code of Conduct. However, he has subsequently conceded that he should have sought the guidance of the relevant committee before becoming a director of DNA Bioscience. Mr Blunkett's critics suggest that he, or his sons, may make a profit of between £45,000 and £285,000 on his initial investment when the company is floated in the new year.

This would seem to be a story in which newspapers should have taken an immediate interest, particularly given Mr Blunkett's other recent lapses of judgement, which include giving a free first-class rail warrant to his former lover, Kimberly Quinn, and using Commons writing paper to send a private letter relating to a planning application near one of his homes.

And yet, last Thursday, only The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail thought the story worthy of extensive coverage. The Guardian and The Times buried it down-page, while The Sun ran a 100-word news-in-brief. I could not find a single word about the matter in the Daily Express, The Independent, the Daily Mirror or the Financial Times. BBC2's Newsnight covered it, but otherwise the Corporation worked up very little interest until yesterday, when the Independent on Sunday sprang into action. It looks as though the media are belatedly waking up.

How can we explain this initial lack of enthusiasm for what may be a juicy scandal? The interest of the Telegraph and the Mail in the affair can be ascribed to their appetite, as newspapers of the right, for embarrassing the Government, though the Mail still nurses a fondness for Mr Blunkett, and would have ripped another minister facing similar accusations limb from limb.

I can't easily make sense of the response of other newspapers. Of course, it is always possible that I am wrong in believing it is a significant story, but if I am right in thinking that it is, there is really only one explanation for the generally comatose reaction. Despite everything he has done, the press remains, because of his disability, more indulgent of Mr Blunkett in his private life than it would be of other ministers. Though I admire and like him, and found his depiction in that Channel 4 programme grotesque, I wish we could treat him like any other politician.

I MUST CONFESS to being a little upset at the way in which Simon Heffer's return to The Daily Telegraph after an absence of 10 years has been handled by the paper. For one thing, while Roy Greenslade's recent arrival was thought to merit a gigantic mugshot on the front page, Mr Heffer's triumphant restoration was deemed worthy only of a single-line announcement above the masthead. Even more worryingly, he did not, as one might have expected, take up residence on the centre pages, but on a new page created for him that seemed almost slightingly removed from the main cut-and-thrust of opinion and debate.

This is no way to treat the new associate editor of The Daily Telegraph, who is supposed to determine the paper's political line on such sensitive matters as the leadership of Tory party. It seems incredible that he should not be allowed to display his wares on the op-ed page in the slot occupied by the likes of Ferdinand Mount and Boris Johnson.

Is he being properly advised by his friend and patron Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Group? Unless he is promptly put in his proper place, we shall begin to believe that he is not as universally loved and valued as he deserves to be.

Time for 'Rommel' to brush up on his German

Perhaps rather amusingly, the man nicknamed 'Rommel' by Private Eye has become the first foreign owner of a German newspaper. David Montgomery's Mecom investment fund has paid some £100m for the Berliner Zeitung and its sister title, Berliner Kurier. The acquisition has provoked much disapproval in the German media, with even the German culture minister weighing in.

At the heart of this controversy is a simple question. Are newspapers just like any other business? Most journalists, and even some newspaper owners, think they are not.

Of course, they have to make their way in the commercial world, but they have a wider political and social role. This is the great paradox of newspapers. They try to make money like any other businesses, but they are not just like any other business.

This partly explains why German journalists, particularly those at the Berliner Zietung and Berliner Kurier, are so suspicious of Mr Montgomery. They see a cold, calculating bean counter whose chief skill lies in cutting costs. He does not even speak German, so is incapable of arriving at an informed personal judgement about the editorial character of the newspapers he has bought.

Some years ago Mr Montgomery was the chief executive of this newspaper. As a former editor of the News of the World, he may not have been in perfect harmony with it, but he does at least speak English.

The only way he can convince the Germans that he is something more than a desiccated counting machine is by learning German, for which task he will probably need three or four hours of personal tuition a day.