It is tempting to wish a plague on both their houses. When you see Alastair Campbell berating someone for being a bully, manipulating the truth, and bending the facts to suit a political agenda, and when you see a representative of the Daily Mail proclaiming objectivity and reason in their editorial decisions, it's pretty difficult to be anything other than despairing about the quality of public discourse in this country. Nick Clegg, in his radio phone-in on LBC, said that the newspaper is “overflowing with bile”, and politicians of every persuasion have been queuing up to excoriate the Daily Mail following their attack on the political beliefs of Ed Miliband's father.
If there's one thing that politicians know, it's how to spot an opportunity. There is definitely something of a public backlash against the newspaper, at least among the chattering classes where politicians move. I even heard that the right-wing columnist Melanie Phillips - who doesn't work for the Mail any longer - was angrily challenged in the street by a passer-by and called on to defend the paper's position. So, under the cover of cross-party agreement that the Mail is a vile organ, politicians who have spent years trying to woo the paper, and to cosy up to its editor, Paul Dacre, are now united in revulsion.
Of course, this doesn't apply to Ed Miliband who - not for the first time - stood up ahead of the public mood, and his articulate defence of his late father's legacy will have struck a chord with the electorate in a way that very few of his policy announcements will have done. As for some of his colleagues... well, Alastair Campbell was at his powerful, articulate best on Newsnight the other day, and right-thinking people throughout Britain will have probably agreed with him: the Mail's piece was spiteful and ill-considered, and was motivated by a crude desire to hurt Mr Miliband.
But if the message was the right one, you have to ask whether he was the right messenger. Anyone who had first-hand experience of Campbell's vigorous briefing style when he was at No 10 will have been incredulous at his protestations. It is no wonder, I think, that the great British public have little regard for politicians or journalists, and don't trust what emerges from the interface between them.
I have seen at first hand the particular double standards of politicians when it comes to their relationship with the Press. Take Gordon Brown, for instance. He was vilified by the Sun and his premiership was blighted by that paper's decision to withdraw support for Labour on the eve of his speech to his party conference. Yet he never missed an opportunity to turn up at Rupert Murdoch's parties, and interrupted the business of government to travel to the Cotswolds in order to make sure he was seen at Rebekah Brooks's wedding. No wonder many observers looked askance when he turned up at the Leveson Inquiry to complain about the way he was treated by the newspapers.
The reverberations from the Mail's attack on the Miliband family may turn out to be more significant than we think now, but the immediate effect is to weaken further public faith in our institutions.Reuse content