Stephen Glover on The Press

Many thanks for the distraction, Rebekah - love, Ruth and Tony
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The Independent Online

ne of the endearing things about Polly Toynbee is the way she jumps to the defence of the political classes (except the Tories) when they are attacked by the media. Readers may recall how outraged she was by Jeremy Paxman's suggestion that Charles Kennedy might enjoy a tipple or two. Last week in The Guardian, Polly worked herself up over the "feeding frenzy" of the newspapers assaulting poor Ruth Kelly. Though she did not on this occasion mention them by name, she may have had her two pet hates in mind - the Daily Mail and The Sun.

The Mail could perhaps be accused of over-egging the pudding, but not The Sun. (Polly should be reminded that it was The Observer that set the ball rolling, with a story on 8 January. A week later it called for Ms Kelly's resignation). The Sun followed up the Observer piece, as did other papers, but immediately accepted the Government's reassurance that the loophole that permitted the appointment of a registered sex offender as a PE teacher had been closed.

As the days went by, and the media grew progressively incredulous, so The Sun provided more critical coverage, and eventually called for Ms Kelly's resignation. But it never approached the decibel level of the Daily Mail, or indeed of several other papers.

On the face of it, this was very odd. For the editor of The Sun is none other than Rebekah Wade, who can justly claim to be the most anti-paedophile journalist in Britain. When she was editor of the News of the World, she so stirred up readers with her "naming and shaming" campaign that some of them took to the streets, confused a paediatrician with a paedophile, and burnt down a house in Portsmouth. In the case of Ruth Kelly's bungling, one would have expected Rebekah to have been directing operations and calling for paedophile teachers to be strung up from a lamp-post, rather than adopting a notably moderate and considered approach. Occasionally her true feelings did break through, as last Friday when the paper declared on its front page that 150 paedophiles are working in schools, but for the most part she has shown remarkable restraint.

So far as Rebekah is concerned, Ruth Kelly can be sacrificed if necessary, but the important thing is that Tony Blair should not suffer too much collateral damage. I am not sure whether Polly has ever fully realised just how close the Murdoch-owned Sun is to Number 10 - far closer than The Guardian - and the relationship has become if anything warmer during Rebekah's editorship. For all The Sun's flirtation with David Cameron, Tony remains Rebekah's - and Murdoch's - boy.

Last Wednesday, The Sun pulled a stunt the purpose of which was surely to give Mr Blair a little boost, and possibly to deflect attention from the Government's tribulations. It informed readers that the boys in blue (also favoured sons of the newspaper) had brilliantly smashed a dastardly plot by "vigilante dads" to kidnap the Prime Minister's youngest son, Leo Blair. I am afraid that some newspapers followed up this story with rather too much credulity. Very little, if any, evidence was produced by The Sun to justify the word "plot". A few possibly slightly inebriated men had got together in a London pub and begun to fantasise about kidnapping young Leo.

By revealing the following day that they were dressed in Santa Claus outfits (following a Fathers 4 Justice demonstration), The Sun itself seemed to be admitting that the whole thing was a bit of a joke. But a joke that certainly did Tony Blair no harm.

We're all fair game in the war of words

Are media columnists "c***s"? I ask because in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard (only recently brought to my attention), Roger Alton, editor of The Observer, suggested that they are, employing characteristically colourful language. Evidently he had been upset by some remarks about his own attire made by the media columnist Peter Wilby in the Standard. He also suggested that I might not write very fondly about The Observer's relaunch.

I am not sure Mr Alton is entirely right about media columnists. Of course, I can think of one or two with whom one would not take a day-trip in the jungle, but I don't suppose they are any worse as a race than political or motoring columnists. What Mr Alton means, I think, is that he does not like being criticised, and that anyone who should presume to do so must be, in his terminology, a "c***".

As editor of a great national newspaper, Mr Alton is a very powerful man, possibly on a par with a cabinet minister. He can break a story which almost brings down Ruth Kelly. He can call for her resignation. Week in week out, his newspaper instils trepidation and sometimes fear into politicians. For the most part they grin and bear it, for that is what a politician has to do.

By contrast, Mr Alton is rarely criticised, even by media columnists. I have been racking my brain, yet other than last week's column (which came after his remarks in the Standard, though I did not know about them), I can barely remember even mentioning Mr Alton since he became editor in 1998. He does not often feature in anyone's column, and on the few occasions that he does he tends to get a pretty good write-up.

The truth is that we journalists can be incorrigible hypocrites. We fire off missile after missile in the direction of politicians, who hardly ever answer back, and yet when one of our own number tosses a feeble pebble in our direction we complain that we are being persecuted by monsters the like of which the world has seldom seen.