These unpredictable press barons still rule the jungle

One of the unexpected developments of the last 30 years is that newspapers, far from becoming less important to politicians, have become more so.
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The Independent Online

The orthodoxy used to be that their influence - which had, in any case, been waning ever since the great days before the First World War - would be transferred to television. What has happened is that television, as it has become progressively worse, has steadily increased in influence; while the newspapers, as they likewise have become worse, have increased in influence too. One development has not excluded the other. Indeed, they have reinforced each other.

The orthodoxy used to be that their influence - which had, in any case, been waning ever since the great days before the First World War - would be transferred to television. What has happened is that television, as it has become progressively worse, has steadily increased in influence; while the newspapers, as they likewise have become worse, have increased in influence too. One development has not excluded the other. Indeed, they have reinforced each other.

But as television has moved forward steadily like an encroaching sea of mud, the papers have resembled unpredictable beasts of the jungle. Or, at any rate, some of them have. No one any longer believes that the Times speaks for the government as it did when its editor Geoffrey Dawson and Stanley Baldwin used to enjoy comfortable chats at the Travellers Club. But the Daily Mail, the News of the World and the Sun occupy a position which no one predicted in 1970.

The Daily Mirror even then had a special place in the mythology of the People's Party. That place had become steadily less exalted during the 1950s. But even in the 1960s Hugh Cudlipp and his acolytes would descend on the party conference like a gang of desperadoes, to find themselves flattered and indulged by the mightiest in the land. In the 1980s Mr Neil Kinnock was embarrassed at having to put on a show of civility to the new proprietor, Robert Maxwell. But he did his duty to the Movement and duly turned up at the Mirror party.

Mr Tony Blair, by contrast, does not seem to care so much about leaving a good impression on the Mirror. He can, he seems to say, take it or leave it. Come the election it will be supporting Labour, as it always does. It has nowhere else to go. The "nowhere else to go" argument, by the way, is one of the most foolish to be deployed by members of the present administration. Mr Blair, I believe, realises its vulnerability. The voters have plenty of places to go to. They can go to the Conservatives, as they did between 1979 and 1992. Or they can go home and sit in front of the television set, as they have done at several non- parliamentary elections since 1997.

Though Mr Blair knows this, he is also obsessed by the people who voted Labour for the first time in 1997. Hence his obsession with their daily or Sunday reading: not the Mirror but the three papers mentioned earlier, two of them owned by Mr Rupert Murdoch, the other by Lord Rothermere.

We are talking here not of measureable influence. To do this we should need to know how many people changed their vote, or moved from a likely abstention to a vote for Labour, because of the generally friendly tone adopted at the last election by the papers in question. It is doubtful whether any reliable figures exist. So we are talking rather of what Mr Blair and Mr Alastair Campbell think of as influence. Such beliefs can often be erroneous. In the 1980s a substantial proportion thought the Sun was a Labour paper. They thought the same about Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express.

Even so, Mr Blair wishes to retain the support he was given in 1997 by the former Conservative newspapers. There can be no other explanation for the shameful silence observed by ministers on the News of the World and the Rebekah Riots.

With the Mail, however, it is what the footballers used to call Goodnight Vienna. Mr Blair briefly bedazzled Sir David English and the present Lord Rothermere's father. Unhappily they soon went to meet the great proprietor in the sky. Mr Blair devoutly attended their various obsequies as if they had given years of devoted service to the Movement. Even in 1997 the editor, Mr Paul Dacre, was uneasy about the enthusiasm of his masters. No good, he seemed to say, would come of it. Mr Dacre can now run his own sweetshop. He is passionately opposed to our joining the euro.

So also is the Sun. As a paper it is the consequence of the acquisition of Odhams Press by the International Publishing Corporation, which then owned the Daily Mirror. With Odhams came the Daily Herald, the Labour Party's (strictly, the TUC's) official newspaper, which Cudlipp did not specially want. Its liabilities, journalistically speaking, exceeded its assets. More out of good will towards Labour than anything else, Cudlipp agreed to keep the paper going, with Sydney Jacobson as editor.

In 1964 it was decided to transform the dowdy old Herald into the sparkling new Sun: "the paper", it was proclaimed, "born of the age we live in". Jacobson was the first editor. The general impression it conveyed was still one of worthiness. It proceeded on the assumption that, as more people became better educated, so would they wish to be better informed about the world. Mr Murdoch possessed no such illusions. The rest we know.

Throughout the 1980s, the "Maggie" years (though no one really called her that), successive Conservative governments lived off Mr Murdoch's immoral earnings. The rules were constantly bent in his favour. As Woodrow Wyatt tell us in his Journals:

"I reminded Rupert [Murdoch] during the evening how at his request and at my instigation she [Margaret Thatcher] had stopped the Times acquisition being referred to the Monopolies Commission though the Sunday Times was not really losing money and the pair together were not."

Only a few weeks later - in an equally blatant political decision - John Biffen, the Trade and Industry Secretary, referred Lonrho's proposed acquisition of the Observer to the MMC even though Tiny Rowland's concern then owned only George Outram, publisher of the Glasgow Herald.

We are now living with the consequences of the state-assisted rise of Mr Murdoch and with the rise of the Daily Mail, which was largely the work of Sir David English and Lord Rothermere. We should also remember Sir Gordon Reece. He is famous for rearranging Lady Thatcher's hair and for lowering her voice an octave. His better claim to fame is that he was the first populist press officer. Just as it was more profitable, as he thought, to appear on the Jimmy Young programme than on Panorama, so it was more important for the prime minister to win the approval of the Sun than of the Daily Telegraph.

Oddly enough, Lady Thatcher did not read papers of any kind, except White Papers. She relied on a digest prepared by her press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham. In this she resembled C R Attlee, who took the Daily Herald out of party loyalty but did not read it and bought the Times for the cricket. John Major was, like Harold Wilson, obsessed by his press coverage. Mr Blair belongs to the same sensitive group. Certainly the fuss he made about photographs of his infant son and of his Tuscan jaunt was absurd. He should be less touchy - and stop sucking up to Mr Murdoch as well.

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