Media's 'balanced' response to report indicates public shift

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The Independent Online

It was an issue guaranteed to generate sensationalist headlines. Yet curiously a report that proposed reduced penalties for class A drugs, and small fines for cannabis users, managed to win plaudits from most of a traditionally sceptical media.

The "friendly" coverage of The Guardian and Independent could have been expected. But the Telegraph, Express and Mirror also entered the debate in reasoned tones, with the Mirror insisting that the report be "discussed intelligently and with an open mind".

But it was the Daily Mail's response that was most surprising. In a leading article on its front page, it said: "Despite this paper's instinctive reservations over a more relaxed approach to drugs, we believe that the issue deserves mature and rational national debate."

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, achieved the rare feat of appearing more reactionary than the Mail. Not bad for a newspaper that three years ago saw the pop group Oasis's invitation to No 10 as a virtual green light to drug dealing.

The tone of the coverage perhaps most surprised members of the inquiry panel that produced the report. Sources within the Police Foundation knew they would be briefed against from the earliest opportunity, and were surprised by the reasoned reactions it elicited.

"We've been encouraged by the overall balance and fairness in the media response, and in particular the strong encouragement by the Mail group for a mature and rigorous debate of these very difficult issues," said Viscountess Runciman, who chaired the inquiry, yesterday.

The only newspaper that gave the report short shrift was The Times. Its leading article, accusing commission members of being "armchair theorists", was curious, given that Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the paper, was part of the panel.

The Daily Mail said yesterday that the tone of its own coverage should not have come as a surprise to anyone. "We have previously said this is too big a subject just to be acted on. Children aren't these days obeying the law as previously and this is a subject that has got to be debated," a senior source said. "We think our readers are mature enough to debate this matter and air concerns on both sides."

It is also possible that the report was launched into a changing climate, made more open by events such as The Independent on Sunday's 1997 campaign to legalise cannabis.

Mike Goodman, director of the drugs charity Release, said the coverage showed the report echoed the views of increasing numbers of people. "The public is a little bit more ready to look at some of the principles, than simply having knee-jerk reactions. People are up for an improved level of debate," he said.