Not for the first time, government ministers have turned their fire on the press over the way they report the great debate over Britain's future in Europe. But this time, ministers are attacking pro-European newspapers rather than their usual targets – the Eurosceptic press.
Ministers are frustrated that their attempts to use last week's introduction of euro notes and coins to push the case for possible British entry has been overshadowed by press reports of alleged divisions inside the Government.
Yesterday, Downing Street attacked the "euro hokey-cokey" performed by the media in recent days, while Peter Hain, the Minister for Europe, told GMTV's Sunday programme that newspapers should "stop spinning". Surprisingly, he included the Press Association (PA), the national news agency, in his list of shame, along with The Independent and The Guardian.
His attack was prompted by the reporting of a BBC Radio 4 interview with his boss Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, in which he distanced himself from Mr Hain's remarks the previous day that Britain could not forever run a "parallel currency economy" alongside the eurozone. The Independent splashed the story last Thursday under the headline: "Straw rejects Hain's claim that Britain will join euro."
Mr Hain criticised the media's "obsession with the slightest little inflection on a word" so that it could write stories about alleged splits between ministers. He went on: "I was told by PA that I had said joining the euro was inevitable – I've never said that, nothing is inevitable in politics. And we've got to have the Press Association, the quality papers like The Independent and The Guardian, stopping spinning. I respect where The Sun comes from, where the Daily Mail comes from – their positions are clear, but I think the rest of the media have got to just allow people to have an intelligent debate and not obsessive nuancing of every tiny little statement."
The phrase "spin journalism" was coined by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spinner-in-chief, who is now the Downing Street director of communications and strategy. To the Government, it means newspapers letting their editorial comments spill over into their news coverage. To journalists, it usually means any story that is "off message" or "unhelpful" in No 10's argot.
What so irked ministers in the past week was that they expected a more sympathetic hearing in pro-European papers like The Independent and The Guardian, which have long demanded that the Government "take a lead" on the euro by launching a debate about its merits. The Government's important change of gear on 1 January should therefore have been welcomed by such papers, ministers claim.
But the papers could not ignore the important differences of emphasis among ministers. If the Government's "five tests" for joining the euro are real, then the Cabinet's divisions are real, too.
The Treasury's silence on the euro after its introduction was golden, while the Foreign Office's ministers made the running by pushing the case for British membership. Andrew Smith, the Treasury Chief Secretary, joined the debate only after pro-European ministers declared at the weekend that the Government's decision would be political as well as economic, openly challenging Gordon Brown's mantra that the five tests are paramount.
When the euro referendum finally comes, the Government will find its main obstacles are in the Eurosceptic papers. Last week they hunted in vain for the "euro chaos" predicted by the Daily Mail, as the launch of the notes and coins went as smoothly as Europhiles could have expected. The Sun led the charge with a front-page editorial comment headlined "Dawn of a New €rror". It declared the project "a giant leap in the dark", "a flawed concept, a folly". Yesterday the European Commission in Brussels seized on the different editions of The Sun produced in London and Dublin on 1 January. The Irish edition was headlined "Dawn of a new €ra" instead of the "€rror" that appeared in the British edition. Next day, the Irish edition told of the "rush for the euro" as people queued for notes and coins; in Britain the headline was "euro rip-offs begin". "The truth told by The Sun's pages in Ireland apparently did not survive the crossing to Britain," a commission spokesman said.
Rupert Murdoch's other daily, The Times, managed a front-page lead headlined "Pound's plunge gives Labour euro jitters" and relegated the euro's successful introduction to the inside pages. But by the end of the new currency's first week, even the Murdoch empire was sending some positive signals. While its News of the World highlighted an opinion poll showing continuing public hostility to the euro, The Sunday Times splashed on another survey suggesting a "majority of Britons warm to euro entry."
Mr Blair is increasingly confident that public opposition to joining could be overcome by a six-month campaign. He intends to appeal directly to the people over the heads of a Eurosceptic-dominated press, stressing the benefits of Europe, as well as the euro. "What the opinion polls show is that people do not trust the media or politicians on this issue," says Mr Hain. "What they want is objective facts, not spin and propaganda." But"objectivity" will be thin on the ground once the referendum campaign proper starts.
Are the Government's complaints about euro coverage another example of "shooting the messenger"? There may be more to it this time. But Labour has form, and counter-productive publicity about "spin" has not stopped ministers putting pressure on the media. At the weekend John Spellar, the Transport Minister, criticised "negative reporting" of the problems on the railways and called for "more balanced" coverage. Try telling that to a beleaguered commuter stuck in yesterday's strike.Reuse content