The Victorians had a word for it, a "hum". This meant a topic of the moment, usually political in character. Choice in the health service is now a hum. Another is that newspapers have become out of hand, have got above themselves, now see themselves as the replacement for the official opposition; and that something - no one is quite sure precisely what, but something - should be done about it.
There is nothing novel about such a cry. Long gone are the days when the chairman of the Tory conference could point patronisingly to the table of scribblers just below her (it always seemed to be her) and thank "our good friends from the press". This was always followed by a polite round of applause: not quite such a rousing round as would follow a reference to our good friends from the police, admittedly, but discernible applause all the same. No longer.
Labour, by contrast, never pretended that the newspapers were its friends, even though for several years, from 1963 to 1967, Harold Wilson was treated much as Mr Tony Blair was from 1994 to ... whenever it was that our papers began to fall out of love with our dear leader.
Oddly enough, most of the hostility seems to come from the backbenchers rather than from members of the Government. This is curious, because they too have fallen out of love with their leader, and for much the same reasons. The Government's relative content is not surprising at all. For despite the break-up of the romance between Mr Blair and the papers, he still receives a better press than Wilson ever did after 10 years as leader or than Mr John Major did after only two.
The reason derives from the support which Mr Rupert Murdoch's papers, The Times, The Sun, The Sunday Times and the News of the World, continue to give to Mr Blair personally and to his government generally. It is a strange alliance. It annoys some and saddens others, such as Ms Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, who, like a fond wife with an erring husband, refuses to believe that it is actually going on.
The alliance is bizarre because, on Europe, Mr Blair believes - or says he believes - the exact opposite of what Mr Murdoch believes. It may be, of course, that, as Edward Gibbon wrote of some emperor or other, Mr Blair's convictions on this subject are more for ostentation than for use. There is certainly abundant evidence for that point of view. Equally, Mr Murdoch could well change his opinions if the new Europe could offer some commercial advantages to his organisations. But, for the moment, there is no sign that that is going to happen.
Mr Murdoch is not a passive partner, either. It was only after a message hinting at a possible shift of support to Mr Michael Howard, a message delivered by Mr Murdoch's man-of-business Mr Irwin Stelzer, that Mr Blair agreed to what may turn out to be a fateful referendum on the European constitution. It is tempting to predict that once Mr Blair has paid the Danegeld, he will never get rid of the Dane - or, in this case, the Australian-American. But it seems that Mr Murdoch is reasonably contented with what he already has, a friendly Act enabling him to acquire Channel 5 television, together with the referendum.
Shortly before the 1997 election, Mr Alastair Campbell (now writing a sports column for The Times, and whose diary of the week appears on Page 26) asked: would it not be marvellous if we could have the support not only of The Sun but of the Daily Mail as well? Had it not been for the untimely deaths of Sir David English (who was about to be ennobled by Mr Blair) and the third Lord Rothermere, respectively editorial director and proprietor of the paper in question, Mr Campbell may have been granted his wish. Certainly Mr Blair tried hard enough to make it come true by his cultivation of assorted Mail columnists and his conspicuous attendance at the various funerals and memorial services for the lately deceased, even though he hardly knew them himself. Alas, Mr Paul Dacre proved to be made of sterner stuff.
Even so, it is difficult to see what the Labour Party is complaining about. The Government has enjoyed and, indeed, is still enjoying a better run than it deserves. The difference today is that journalists have themselves joined in the hostility. Mr John Lloyd of the Financial Times has written a book complaining about the press and has appeared on Newsnight to pursue his case. Mr Martin Kettle of The Guardian has written several articles along the same lines. He has even proposed a standing committee of MPs - inevitably controlled by the Whips - to supervise the papers. Politicians commonly have little conception of truth and judge everything from the point of view of party advantage.
Both critics sound much as Mr Campbell used to do in the days when he was trying to run a one-party state from inside No 10: the press is trivial, personalises matters, does not deal adequately or at all with "the issues" and, worst of all, encourages contempt for politicians.
Now, there is no doubt that parts of the press are a disgrace. It would be silly to deny that. However, the remedy lies not with government or the papers themselves but with the judges. So far, the judges have refused to develop a law of privacy, preferring instead, even after the Human Rights Act, to base their decisions on the law of confidentiality. This has grown over the last 40 years from the Duchess of Argyll's case, the details of which can have no place in a column designed for family reading.
But this kind of thing is quite different from the treatment of politics and politicians. Ms Beverley Hughes would still be a minister if it had not been for the papers. The backbenchers and Mr David Blunkett (in every way a disgrace to his office) were determined that she should stay. What finished her off was the recollection of a colleague, Mr Bob Ainsworth, that she had been stating that which was not the case. The same pattern of events was evident in the second resignation of Mr Peter Mandelson. Here likewise it was a colleague, Mr Mike O'Brien, who revealed that Mr Mandelson's memory was, so to speak, at fault. But neither resignation would have occurred if it had not been for the tenacity of the newspapers.
The latest body to beat the breast is the BBC. It is sending its journalists to be re-educated. This derives from a misunderstanding of Lord Hutton's inquiry. He does not show that Mr Campbell refrained from "sexing-up" intelligence reports. On one definition, indeed, provided by the learned judge himself, this is precisely what happened. Mr Andrew Gilligan was mostly right. And the BBC's antics are merely the latest example of the tendency to don a penitential shirt for no reason at all.
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By Alan Watkins
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