Stephen Glover on The Press
They were the friends Blair thought he could count on. Not any more
Monday 27 March 2006
From 1997 until recently, Tony Blair has enjoyed the support of most newspapers. The Murdoch press - The Sun and The Times - has formed one wing of his army. The other has been made up of the Left-leaning Daily Mirror, Guardian, and Independent. These papers have been less dependable than the Murdoch press, and to varying degrees broke ranks over the Iraq war, but they have stayed broadly sympathetic to New Labour. So too have those bien pensant titles, the Financial Times and Economist.
Whatever vicissitudes Mr Blair has endured, and whatever scandals have attached to him, this has remained the default position. His supporters have not deserted him. The only opposition he has faced has come from a fuming Daily Mail (which he loathes as much as it detests him), a more polite and tentative Daily Telegraph and, since it reverted to supporting the Tories, the Daily Express.
Last week the familiar landscape changed as a result of the latest sleaze row. For the first time in nine years there were cracks, probably irreversible ones, in the Blairite alliance. On Monday The Guardian ran a long leader which, though far from antagonistic, suggested that the Prime Minister should go this summer. A few days earlier Polly Toynbee, who once worshipped at Mr Blair's feet, made the same point. And last Wednesday Jonathan Freedland - one of two heirs apparent to the editorship of The Guardian - pronounced that, politically speaking, Mr Blair was finished.
The effect of these pieces - and in particular the leader - cannot be easily underestimated. The Guardian is the closest thing Labour has to an in-house journal. It both reflects and influences opinion in the party. Its measured call for Mr Blair's resignation will have hurt him more than a similar editorial in The Economist. That magazine sells nearly four times as many copies in America as it does in this country (in the UK it has a weekly circulation of about 150,000 copies). Mr Blair's stock will have fallen in Wisconsin, and he will not like that, but he would be unhappier still were The Economist a more powerful force in Britain.
The Murdoch press also gave the Prime Minister a rougher ride than it ever has before. The controversy over loans to the Labour party found its way regularly on to the front page of The Times. The Sun tended to consign it to page two, but it did run a series of snippy leaders. To start with, it pinned the blame on Jack Dromey for blowing the whistle. A second editorial admitted that "Labour, and Tony Blair, do not emerge well", though it believed everything might be put right by a good budget. A couple of days later the paper conceded that "Tony Blair should have known better", and, in a final leader, suggested that he might have lost the right to choose the moment of his own departure. This is as close as The Sun has ever got to disowning Mr Blair.
We could argue until the cows come home about how much the press can really influence voters before a general election. But there can surely be little dispute that a Prime Minister already in difficulties is likely to be further weakened when newspapers that were once loyal turn against him. If Mr Blair does try to cling on to power, The Guardian can hardly keep quiet, having asked for his resignation. Nor will The Sun find it easy to contain its irritation with Mr Blair in the event of further problems.
These are the beginnings of the break-up of Mr Blair's grand alliance. The Guardian and other leftish titles can probably be counted on to offer Gordon Brown the same support that they once gave to Tony Blair. But will the Murdoch press transfer its allegiances so easily? Only so long as Rupert Murdoch believes that a Brown-led Labour party will safeguard his economic interests better than David Cameron's Tories.
Economies of scale
The Economist's US editor, John Micklethwait, has been appointed the new editor of the magazine, to succeed Bill Emmott. According to some reports, he was recently offered the editorship of The Spectator, but turned it down.
If Mr Micklethwait had gone to The Spectator, he might have had a lot more fun. But he would not have been able to swank around America, as editors of The Economist are wont to do, with credulous businessmen hanging on his every word. He would also have been enormously poorer. I am told that Mr Emmott was paid - including bonuses and so forth - £1.4m in his last year at The Economist. This may well have made him the best rewarded editor in the world. He certainly has no close rivals in Britain, the nearest being Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail, who hovers around £1m a year.
Yet another media columnist is gagged. It is time for him to reinvent himself as a blogger
Over the years I may have occasionally teased my esteemed colleague Roy Campbell-Greenslade, who earned his double-barrelled moniker after he on many occasions loyally represented the views of the Prime Minister's then press secretary. But now is the time for all of us to rally to Roy's side.
Three weeks ago his media column in The Daily Telegraph was canned. Roy had argued - rightly, I think - that evidence given by Trinity Mirror to the Press Complaints Commission six years ago about the City Slickers affair had been contradicted during a recent court case. After senior executives at Trinity Mirror had contacted their counterparts at the Telegraph Group, Roy's piece was pulled. A week later an apparently inoffensive item about the Profumo affair was also rejected. Plainly someone was trying to get rid of Roy, who has duly resigned.
A little over a year ago I had a not dissimilar experience at The Spectator (which, like The Daily Telegraph, is owned by the Barclay brothers) where I wrote a media column. Boris Johnson, the magazine's then editor, had told me repeatedly the Barclays did not like media columns. In a chumpish mood he then censored a piece I had written which was actually quite favourable to the management of the Telegraph Group, and I resigned.
Newspapers, which are in the business of winkling out and conveying information, have always been furtive when their own affairs are written about. Nonetheless, Conrad Black, the previous proprietor of the Telegraph Group, was considerably less sensitive than the Barclay brothers appear to be. They may not be alone. Only a few weeks ago, the chief executive of another newspaper group told me that he abhorred media columns because they cause difficulties with other media organisations. There may be building up a sort of closed shop amongst newspaper owners and executives in which it will be more difficult for such columnists to operate.
God knows, we have our shortcomings. But if there are fewer journalists writing about the media, a very powerful estate will escape scrutiny. This might suit newspaper owners and executives, but it is not obviously in the interests of ordinary readers. That said, I don't believe it is possible for media proprietors to shut up debate in the way they might like to.
There is something called the internet. There is nothing to prevent Roy from setting up as a blogger, and fearlessly offering his generally well-informed views.
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