The Media Column: So who won on fox freedom day? Apart from the foxes, of course

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The Independent Online

A pack of howling dumb animals is not a pretty sight, whether in pursuit of a fox or stampeding into the House of Commons to create mayhem.

A pack of howling dumb animals is not a pretty sight, whether in pursuit of a fox or stampeding into the House of Commons to create mayhem. But hounds elicit sympathy because they know no better. The eight pro-hunting demonstrators who infiltrated the Palace of Westminster to protest about the Government's "contempt for democracy" had no such excuse and won only the contempt of a public that, on the whole, prefers foxes to hooligans.

The only section of the community that in any way appreciated the storming of Parliament was the media - or, at least, television and radio and those newspapers that knew an explosive story when one bit them in the legs and were not hampered by an inhibiting anti-government agenda.

Here was drama that distanced itself from the fox-hunting debate at a gallop, thereby rendering the Commons demonstration pointless. Dumb? The protesters were, but so were those papers that allowed a loathing of the Blair administration to colour their news judgement. This and a fear of upsetting readers for whom fox hunting appears to be a necessity of life comparable to breathing resulted in some journalism so off-beam that it should have been issued with a compass and an Ordnance Survey map of news judgement.

The Daily Telegraph provided the most blatant example of getting it wrong. It despaired of the rare victory of fox over hound: "Despite the disruption, the Government succeeded in pushing the Hunting Bill through all its stages at one sitting." Even a fox might have had difficulty in suggesting that progress of the Bill warranted greater emphasis than security at Westminster having just been fed into a paper shredder.

Pandering to readers in the shires who write sniffy Letters to the Editor is one thing. Pandering to supposed readers in the shires, nearly all of whom long ago packed their shooting sticks in their Land Rovers and decamped to a different newspaper, is very much another.

The Daily Express, presumably fearful that some old characters from an Osbert Lancaster cartoon had not noticed that the paper has changed radically over the past few decades, covered the story by sitting on the fence so firmly that its stakes were coming up through the paper's windpipe. The Express no longer supports New Labour and it wasn't difficult to see where its sympathies were directed here: celebrating foxes should stay away from the south side of Blackfriars Bridge (not so fanciful: there are three in my neck of west London).

The Times so lost the plot that it relegated its comment on the day's events to the second leader, apparently believing that despite the violence in the House dominating TV news bulletins, the Government's "new assessment arrangements" in education was the hotter topic. As for the poor old Mirror, its anachronistic headline was indicative of the paper's current struggle to re-establish its identity. "Toff With Their Heads" was old-fashioned - who other than tabloid sub-editors ever uses the word "toff" these days? - and trivialised an important story.

The Daily Mail was, as ever, eye-catching and supremely professional in putting the boot in to the Government. "Civil War", it announced with aplomb and stupefying exaggeration, while sidetracking the security story. And The Guardian was also self-assured in describing the assault on Parliament as an attack on the liberty of the British people. No supporter of the pro-hunt lobby, The Guardian knows it does not have to be fearful of offending people whom its urbane readers see as bumpkins wearing green wellington boots and carrying pitchforks.

So who, by luck and judgement, came out ahead journalistically on the day of fox freedom (House of Lords permitting)? This was an occasion when it really was The Sun (I should declare an interest - I contribute to the paper) wot won it. Its front-page headline, "For Fox Sake!", may have been in dubious taste, but it out-punned the Mirror by a country mile. The paper seized the security angle with a prominent subsidiary heading and an editorial observing of the belated presence of armed police at Parliament: "Talk about shutting the door after the fox has eaten the chickens."

The Sun delivered the coup de grâce the following morning with the story of how reporter Anthony France himself breached security to smuggle a fake bomb into the House. Peter Hain, leader of the Commons, was obliged to thank the paper for its initiative. Wails and gnashing of teeth doubtless could be heard from Canary Wharf. Rebekah Wade, who has not had the easiest of rides recently at a Sun that is no longer soaraway, must have been happiest of all those involved in a stimulating 24 hours.

Except for the foxes, that is.