Brian Cathcart: Did the press kill Cleggmania? I'm not so sure

The right-wing media set about smearing the Lib Dem leader, but it may have had little bearing on the election result
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The Independent Online

The press is loving it. A good indicator of its state of excitement is that the big-gun columnists are jostling for space, some even settling for a few square inches instead of their customary acres. Max Hastings, Kelvin MacKenzie, Richard Littlejohn, David Owen, Tony Parsons, Jane Moore, Michael Portillo, Polly Toynbee – you name them; they were making their points.

A more obvious sign is that The Sun had 23 pages of pure politics yesterday, the Mail 16 and the Mirror 15; so thrilling is the election aftermath that a new twist in the Harry-Chelsy saga was relegated to the back of the book. But is it a crisis? Maybe not. You might have expected our excitable press to press the panic button in the face of something so novel and supposedly foreign as a hung parliament, but for the moment at least most papers appear to have kept their heads.

You had to turn to the Daily Mail for a real, all-hands-on-deck, headless-chicken disaster story. The election, it declared, was an unholy mess; the electorate, having defied the Mail's many clear warnings, was guilty of "a vote for uncertainty and shabby deals", and before long we will all be plunged into "the same abyss as Greece".

But that was the exception. The Sun managed to be outraged that Gordon Brown had not moved out of No 10, dressing up a van with the legend "Brown and Brown Removals" for a stunt outside Downing Street, but otherwise it showed uncharacteristic sangfroid in presenting Friday as "a day of turmoil – and hope".

The Mirror ("We're well hung") entered straight into the negotiating spirit of the moment by urging Nick Clegg to opt for Labour. The Times admittedly, was anxious, speaking of the "urgent need" to form a government in the interests of stability, but the Telegraph refused to flap, declaring: "This is not yet a crisis...". And The Guardian blithely declared the whole occasion a great opportunity for democracy.

If this is the new politics, then, the first signs are that the press can take it. And why not? It is good to write abouT. It offers unpredictability, drama and conflict, the stuff of good journalism. It gives columnists and leader writers something to get their teeth into.

A better question may be: how long will this last? After an election in 1977 it took the Dutch political parties 208 days, about seven months, to patch together a coalition – a European record. The dykes did not burst and the Dutch survived the experience, but then they are famously patient and had long experience of coalition-making.

Seven months is not an option here, nor even seven weeks – though what is seven weeks when set beside the five years of a governing mandate? Seven days of haggling would probably be more than enough to try the patience of the press.

George Bernard Shaw was writing of British journalists when he remarked that they could not tell a bicycle accident from the end of the world. In this case the odds are that as soon as they get just a little bit bored with political haggling, this interlude will be declared a crisis of world-ending proportions.

In this they will inevitably have the support of their business editors, who are already dancing around the fringes of the election coverage trying to tell us that the markets don't like uncertainty and that traders will (as the Mail so ardently hopes) start to sell the pound, force up our interest rates, damage house prices and other end-of-the-world stuff.

Equally, the editors and columnists who set a limit to their patience will probably have the support of their readers. After an election as strange as this one it is a foolish person who claims to know what the British public thinks, but one observation seems to be relatively safe: they don't trust their politicians and they don't like political posturing.

Wise editors will channel that mood. As long as the negotiations last, and as long as any consequent partnerships last, politicians who strike poses and play games will be unpopular and even the most partisan papers will have difficulty defending them. The new mood of politics, dictated by the readers rather than the media, is low-key and businesslike.

As for the campaign of 2010, what does it tell us about the state of the British news media? The Conservative press is congratulating itself that, while it didn't manage to secure an overall majority for David Cameron, it at least killed off Cleggmania.

At one stage, just after the first televised debate, a poll showed the Liberal Democrats on 32 per cent, actually ahead of the other two parties. After nearly three weeks of relentless smearing and abuse from the Tory press, however, the party finished with 23 per cent of the votes.

Nobody will ever be able to prove, however, that the smears and the result were connected, just as nobody can say for sure whether in 1992 it was The Sun wot won it.

One counter-argument is that, looking back over the weeks since the election was called, there is no reason to believe that anything at all that happened in the campaign, even including the televised debates, made much of a difference. That curious result seems to speak of boredom and annoyance with Labour, of a failure to be convinced by Cameron, of a certain scepticism about Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats. Above all, it suggests a public disenchantment with and distrust of politicians (though not of politics).

These factors were in play long before the election. Expenses, hard economic times and an impatience with the entire style of modern British politics seem to have trumped bigotgate, Lord Ashcroft's cash, Sam Cameron's pregnancy, Nick Clegg's eloquence and all the other short-term forces in the campaign.

By implication, the press and the news media have been mere bystanders in the unfolding of this new political chapter. Or rather, they have been mere reporters. And you might think that that is a good thing.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

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