Him v them: Squire Major faces the press barons

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NEXT Thursday, Gus O'Donnell, the Prime Minister's long-suffering press secretary, finally leaves Downing Street for a high-powered economic job in the Treasury. Meanwhile, the legendary editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, heads for a new highly paid post as managing director of Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB satellite television station.

It is fair to speculate that little love is lost between the two men. The Sun has denounced John Major as showing 'all the leadership of a lemming' and presiding over a government 'of hapless harlots (who) wouldn't recognise decency if they fell out of their mistresses' bed and landed on it'. Then, along with the Daily Mail, it spoiled Mr O'Donnell's leaving party, reporting that Mr Major used theoccasion to make a private threat to 'f***ing crucify' his right-wing colleagues.

Mr O'Donnell might just have the last laugh. While Mr MacKenzie has hardly been sacked (unlike the Sun astrologer he once dismissed with the words, 'As you will already know . . . '), Labour MPs were wondering last night if he had been kicked upstairs as part of a truce between Mr Major and his press tormentors.

The Sun and Mr MacKenzie exercise a powerful grip on the Tories party. Ministers fear invitations to lunch at Wapping. According to one source: 'There was no middle way. They either loved you, in which case they would write 'minister gets tough' stories, or hate you, in which case the story would be more along the lines of 'minister is limp-wristed faggot' '.

But criticism has rained in on the Government from almost all the Tory press: the Mail, the Sunday Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Spectator and, occasionally, the Daily Telegraph; only the Daily and Sunday Express have remained basically loyal.

Thus the minister responsible for the press, Peter Brooke, chose his words carefully when he attended the Media Society lunch last Monday, along with executives such as Sir David English, chairman and editor- in-chief of Associated Newspapers. Mr Brooke described the British press as the most vibrant in the world, adding, pointedly, that he attached 'no valuative gloss' to the word vibrant.

The damage, according to one Conservative ex-minister, has taken its toll: 'You cannot have the Sun and the Mail against you every day of the week. It's just too many Tory readers. And the papers have won every battle since they targeted Lawson. Everyone from Lamont to Mellor to Yeo has gone.'

There are several strands to the criticism from the Conservative press. One comes from ideological defenders of the Thatcherite faith who believe that Mr Major has betrayed his predecessor's legacy. The senior echelons of the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator best represent this strand.

The tabloids present a different, in many respects more worrying, problem for Mr Major, because they represent Conservative opinion as much as they lead it. Comparisons with Lady Thatcher colour editorial judgements more in terms of leadership than ideology. In other words, to editors, Mr Major simply does not look the part of Prime Minister.

On the television news on Wednesday night there was a clip of him entering a room already full of his Cabinet colleagues. 'The body language,' says Hugh Stephenson, professor of journalism at the City University 'was quite extraordinary. They did not move to let him through. He had to do a sort of slalom course, saying 'I am sorry' as they stood there. Imagine if Mrs Thatcher had come into the room: a path would have opened both sides as they sycophantically pulled back.'

But the Tory press is also reflecting policy failures. The first signs of anger at Mr Major's government surfaced after Black Wednesday, and continued as the recession deepened. The Sun had urged readers at the last election to 'vote Conservative on Thursday and the recovery will begin on Friday'. The reality proved to be very different.

Richard Littlejohn, the Sun's Irritant of the Year columnist, said: 'Most politicians seem no longer to live in the real world. The Tories seem unaware of the hardship and the hurt they have caused. They have been incompetent, they have lied, they have broken electoral promises, they have thrown people out of work, they have cost hundreds of thousands of people their homes - and yet not one of them has ever turned around and said sorry.'

The furore over the Government's back-to-basics initiative encapsulates tabloid frustration with Mr Major. Here at last was a message that Tory editors believed they could sell to their readers. Yet, when the scandal broke of Tim Yeo's affair and illegitimate child, Mr Major backtracked rather than sacking the minister.

A senior source at the Daily Mail says that, not long after the arrival of Paul Dacre as editor, 'the Mail started to become sceptical of John Major. It has been critical of Mr Major because because he does not always seem to be acting in the Tory party's best interests. It has been sceptical of Maastricht, critical of the high level of taxation, applauded back-to- basics and single mums, but became critical when the Government lost heart and started backtracking on back-to-basics.' What the Mail was targeting was the Government's 'apparent inability to stick to its guns on a good idea and its insistence on sticking to its guns on a bad idea'.

However, most politicians believe that, come the next election, the Tory tabloids will return to the aid of the party. Sir Bernard Ingham, Lady Thatcher's former press secretary, said: 'I shall be astonished if at the end of the parliament they are not back with the Tories because I am not sure if their proprietors will allow them to be anything else.'

Signs of a partial truce are in the air. One is Mr MacKenzie's departure, because, as one well-informed opposition politician put it, it makes it easier for the Sun to back Mr Major at the next election - 'At least the editor's own words cannot be thrown back at the paper'.

Another is the change of press secretary at Number 10, which will allow for new relationships to be forged with editors. This has been accompanied by high-level contacts.

In the autumn - just before a thaw in relations with the tabloids - Rupert Murdoch dined with Mr Major. Last Wednesday, Virginia Bottomley met Stewart Steven, editor of the London Evening Standard, at a lunch hosted by Lord Archer. Although the Standard has not been hostile to Mr Major like its stablemate, the Mail, it has attacked the Tories over health policy in London; last Thursday's paper carried a positive health story on its front page. Sir David English met a group of ministerial advisers last week, and on Thursday night his car and chauffeur were seen outside Downing Street. He is said to want his papers to ease off on Mr Major.

There are solid reasons why the large newspaper groups need to keep on good terms with the Government. The period after the Tory party conference, which saw a sharp improvement in Mr Major's press, is a good example, as it coincided with a looming Budget decision on the imposition of VAT on newspapers.

With the VAT worry behind them for the time being, two issues dominate the agendas of News International and Associated Newspapers. The first is cross-media ownership, with the Government reviewing restrictions that prevent papers from buying into terrestrial television companies. The second is the threatened introduction of privacy legislation. This is opposed by almost all newspapers but feared most by the tabloids; the Sun once asked a French lawyer to examine the extent to which their papers would be affected, and was horrified by the response.

Although the privacy package was expected early this year, the latest hints are that no proposals will be reached until Easter at the earliest. Some senior sources said last week that privacy laws are still likely, while others think proposals may be left hanging over the press indefinitely as a threat. When one Cabinet minister who lunched with senior journalists last week was asked about the White Paper, he replied: 'What White Paper?'

Given the delicacy of some of these issues, Mr Murdoch might have felt it advantageous to have a less volcanic character at the helm of the Sun. And what of Mr MacKenzie? On Friday night, after his departure was announced, he broke off from a party to remake his front page with another immortal Sun headline, on the Bobbitt case verdict: 'Willy-chop wife goes free.'

As one Conservative source put it: 'Don't expect to see an increase in Sky's opera output'.

Leading article, page 18

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