Brian Cathcart: Some kind of madness: How the Tory press lost the plot

For decades, Britain's newspapers have largely ignored the Liberal Democrats. Now, faced with Nick Clegg's impressive showing, they are desperate to hang on to the status quo

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You failed. You out there, you voters: you disgraced yourselves. You were allowed off your lead for a moment to have a bit of fun, and what did you do? You ran up to the first stranger you saw and followed him out of the park. Shame on you.

Your shortcomings were laid bare in the Daily Mail's leading article about Cleggmania last Friday, beneath the stern headline: "Elections are more than X Factor politics."

"It was a matter of some concern," the paper announced, "that 10 per cent of the electorate could change their views so dramatically in the space of an hour and a half, and that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats could emerge as the apparent winners of that debate with the public learning so little of their policies and values.

"Over the past week" – this is the really memorable bit – "this newspaper has tried to rectify that failing, and we continue today with our examination of what the Liberals really stand for."

So be honest. Did you, even for a fleeting moment, take a shine to Nick Clegg? Did the thought of voting Lib Dem cross your mind? There may have been millions like you, but that is no excuse. In the eyes of Paul Dacre, the Mail's editor, you are a shallow, thoughtless person. Worse, your failure has had to be "rectified".

What presumption. What pomposity. It is just one measure of the panicky horror that gripped the Tory press last week that the Mail should so spectacularly have succumbed to folie de grandeur.

Another measure, perhaps, was the extraordinary behaviour of Rupert Murdoch's two most senior representatives in Britain, his son James and the former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, in marching into the offices of The Independent last Wednesday and haranguing its editor in front of his staff.

Fresh from lunch nearby, the two were apparently furious about The Independent's publicity material they had spotted which simply stated: "Rupert Murdoch won't decide this election – you will."

You need to pause for a moment to grasp it. Yes, they were upset, angry and indignant, and they were defending the reputation of Rupert Murdoch. Since that is something even he rarely attempts nowadays, you have to hope for their sakes that it was a good lunch.

This was the maddest of weeks for the press in a very long time. It began, of course, the previous Thursday, when the Lib Dem leader emerged from the first televised leaders' debate to find that, by one almost-instant measure, 61 per cent of viewers thought he had "won". There followed, among the conservative papers which dominate our national press, a few days of stunned confusion. On the one hand, normal, modern journalistic reflexes went into operation. Never mind that these were just polls, that this was just the first debate and that election day was three weeks off: Clegg was now the one and only story, obscuring all else like a volcanic dust cloud.

On the other hand, editors were clearly appalled. The Sun, the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph are all banking on a Tory victory. All their eggs are in that basket and this upstart Clegg was threatening to overturn it. For these men it is unthinkable that Labour might win this election, but it was worse, it was an unforeseen and appalling nightmare that the Lib Dems should emerge from nowhere (as they imagined it), to obstruct David Cameron's progress to No 10.

A vivid insight into their mindset was offered by David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, who wrote last week of how the paper boycotted the Liberal Democrat's conference every year "for fear of encouraging them". Although a fifth of the country has consistently supported the party, The Sun had a policy of pretending it did not exist. Yelland went on to describe a "great game" played by editors with the other two parties: "The trick is to ally yourself with the winner and win influence or at least the ear of the prime minister." This time, The Sun has very publicly allied itself with Cameron. No wonder Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch are in a bad mood.

By last Sunday, no doubt in part because Clegg was dominating the news and comment agenda, his poll standing was off the traditional scale. The Mail on Sunday actually had the Lib Dems ahead of both other parties – for the first time, as it put it, in 104 years.

But a furious backlash was beginning and, according to the Lib Dems, it was encouraged and possibly even co-ordinated by the Tory campaign team. They allege that George Osborne summoned right-wing political reporters to briefings last Monday about responding to the Clegg surge.

Whatever the truth of that charge, what followed, building up to the day of the second debate, was pinch-yourself amazing. Like children in a tantrum, reporters and commentators reached for every movable object and hurled it at Clegg and his party.

On the internet there is a law, Godwin's Law, which states that the longer a debate goes on the more certain it is that Nazis will be mentioned. The Mail, in print and online, didn't hang around. The front-page headline "Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain" was a masterpiece of slurring: a moronic interpretation of a suddenly discovered 2002 article, bolstered by some frothing quotations from Nicholas Soames, "grandson of wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill".

Meanwhile, in the Telegraph, deputy editor, Ben Brogan, noting that a poll had rated Clegg the most popular leader since Sir Winston, warned readers: "Vote Churchill, get Stalin." And Cristina Odone brought a faith perspective to the business of rectifying voters. Her target was the Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, whom she dubbed, for his views on abortion and euthanasia, "Dr Death": the Mr Hyde to Clegg's Dr Jekyll. Harris lends "something sinister" to the Lib Dem line-up, she said.

The Mail's Tom Utley also went to extremes to bash Clegg. "If this had been any ordinary general election, like the other seven I've covered, I would certainly not have travelled from home in London to Cornwall and back (16 hours in one day, door-to-door) for the privilege of spending half an hour on a cricket pitch listening to the leader of the Lib Dems."

And what did he learn in that half hour, for which he made such noble sacrifice? Nick Clegg, it seems, may be "the most potent threat to our survival as a self-governing state".

Clegg has dodgy donations; he fiddled his expenses; he is posher than Cameron; he is only one-quarter British; he is part of a Euro-plot against the country; he is concealing a pact with Lord Mandelson; he employs an unpleasant person as his media adviser; he eats babies and he is a fully-paid-up member of al-Qa'ida. OK, I made a couple of those up, but the message was there, over acres of newsprint: this man is not just dangerous; he represents a direct threat to you and your family. If sighted, do not approach.

The second debate (of which more elsewhere on these pages) clearly brought some relief to these editors, though a continuing desperation surely showed in their shameless preference for polls showing that Cameron "won" over polls that suggested anything else. It is too early to say, but maybe the fit is wearing off.

What really happened in this mad week? Maybe (would it be that surprising or new?) the Daily Mail has it all the wrong way around. Maybe it is not us, the readers and voters, who have been rectified, but them. For decades, as Yelland suggests, the press has been largely a two-party world. For many reasons it suits them best. It is less complicated and more Punch and Judy that way, so the stories are easier to tell. And it offered editors and senior reporters a gratifying closeness to power.

Lib Dems, though they enjoy strong voter support, don't get much of a look in. And, of course, the electoral system ensures they don't get many seats. In a manner never seen before, however, the TV debates show that England, at least, is a three-party country. Decades of distortion were ripped away as the leaders spoke to voters without journalistic intervention. The voters saw something different, and for a few short, but revealing, days the old-world, old-media editors whom this did not suit were left on the sidelines frothing, perplexed and hysterical.

Brian Cathcart was the author in 1997 of 'Were You Still Up for Portillo?' He is professor of journalism at Kingston University

What they think in Derby North...

Derby North is a Labour marginal that the Tories must take to gain an overall majority. We asked voters if the week's press coverage or last Thursday's second leaders' debate had changed their minds

Simon Parks, 51

Business consultant

"I'm cynical as to how seriously the public take the press. On TV, Cameron came across a bit worse than previously, Clegg was also a bit worse, Gordon came across as badly as the first time. It all seems to be about how good you are at charades."

Maria Winder, 63

Retired

"I thought the pieces in the Telegraph and the Daily Express last week were a deliberate attack on Clegg. To me it was dirty tactics to sway people not to vote for him. It wouldn't sway me as I think I am going to vote Liberals this time. The debate was completely different from last week. All three seemed to perform much, much better. I think both Brown and Cameron had been copying Clegg as they were both referring to people by their names and Cameron was looking straight into the camera. I still think Clegg came out on top again. They all seemed to speak a lot more from the heart – especially Cameron, he seemed completely lost last week."

Steve Hassall, 33

Manager of a cleaning company

"The Conservative-friendly papers could sway people to vote away from Clegg as they have power. I think now the scrutiny is there, Clegg will find it a lot harder. I think Cameron and Brown were better prepared and put on a much better show. The questions this week revealed a greater division between them all – especially on immigration. Personally, I don't think Clegg's amnesty really holds up. Also on Trident, it's important that we have a nuclear deterrent. I thought Brown's line on "if you want style and PR count me out" was a good line, but Cameron came across as the most determined and had the better ideas."

Stevie Rosso, 64

Community development officer

"I would be concerned about what the papers are saying about Clegg if I were thinking about voting for him. People haven't really known about him before. I still feel that Gordon Brown and his team know what they're doing coming out of the recession. Everything the other parties want is going to cost us money – but they don't seem to talk about money much. I also think the debates – basing the leaders' performances on how they look and how they perform – is very worrying. I really do trust Brown and I feel very loyal to him. I'm terrified of Cameron or Clegg getting in as they've no experience and don't know what they're doing."

Josh Eades, 35

Law student

"I think the piece in the Telegraph will be seen as a smear campaign. I think the way to attack the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg is to pull apart their polices. I probably watched the video of the last debate a few hundred times and it was totally different. I think that Gordon had vastly improved – he was like a different person. It reminded me of PMQs in that it was a little more aggressive. I thought it was a classic line when Gordon told Nick to "get real". I don't think Nick Clegg improved, I think he realised he hit his peak in his first one and I think he was trying to dumb it down a little – he wasn't as forthright as he was in the first debate."

David Hindle, 47

Independent financial adviser

"I suppose I've been waiting for the smear campaign against Clegg, I thought it was very interesting that Lord Mandelson came out and said the allegations in the papers weren't true – it has to be because Labour feel they are going to have to work with the Lib Dems. I thought David Cameron did a lot better in the debate this time. He didn't seem hell-bent on just trying to win one over Gordon Brown – who I thought was terrible. I thought he was bitter and I thought he was only interested in having digs. I thought it was very interesting the way they cut to other people's faces – so when they cut to Brown's face, he just had that stupid, smug smirk on his face."

John McCartney, 67

Retired

"I think the things in the papers about Clegg were a bit of a flash-in-the-pan and everyone's now convinced he didn't do anything. There's no doubt that both Cameron and Brown raised their game – there was a lot more looking at the camera and that kind of thing. On the whole, I think Cameron came out a lot better than last time; Clegg was similar and Gordon Brown was... Gordon Brown. The thing about him is that he reels out all this material and you've heard it all before – there's too much detail and too many statistics. Clegg worries me on Europe."

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