"A newspaper," wrote George Bernard Shaw "is a device unable to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation." It is the most elegant expression of the intellectual view that the editors of the popular press have a unique talent for exaggerating the facts beyond all recognition - and then demanding the measures to deal with a non-existent catastrophe.
According to the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on crime and sexual offences, Terry Grange, things have now become much worse. The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum: the Government has been taking the measures demanded of them by the red-top newspapers, and in particular the News of The World.
Chief Constable Grange told the BBC: "Anybody who has watched the last six months on all forms of the debate on public protection, whether it's home-grown criminals, foreign criminals, sex offenders, it's all been brought about by the media putting pressure on the Government and the Government responding to it. Under the last three home secretaries it has been a litany of abandonment of any real decision-making in favour of what one particular newspaper wants and then complying with its wishes."
It's a bit harsh to lump Charles Clarke and John Reid together with David Blunkett. Mr Blunkett really did have an inappropriate relationship with the former editor of the News of the World and now of The Sun, Rebekah Wade - and I don't mean in a sexual sense. His habit of using her offices to undermine the then head of the Metropolitan Police, John Stevens, caused a much more dangerous breach at the highest level in the relationship between government and police than the present spat. Think what you like about John Reid, but at least he stabs his enemies in the front.
Exhibit A in the police's case against Dr Reid is the claim that he has caved in to The News of the World's demand for "Sarah's law". Since the conviction in 2001 of a recidivist paedophile, Roy Whiting, for the murder of seven-year-old Sarah Payne, the newspaper campaigned for a law which would enable people to know if a convicted paedophile was living in their area. Last Sunday The News of the World's front page trumpeted: "SARAH'S LAW VICTORY." But was it?
Dr Reid had told the paper that he was going to send a minister to the United States to examine how a similar measure, called "Megan's law", was working. And that's it. Of course it suits The News of the World to declare its campaign victorious, and it suits Dr Reid to be praised lavishly in the country's biggest selling newspaper. But I would be surprised if the result of the minister's trip is a fully-fledged "Megan's law" in Britain.
This government is adept at making gestures to appease a newspaper law-and-order campaign without actually changing anything very much. In 2004, as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, I launched a campaign to increase the rights of householders to defend themselves and their family against intruders. The event which had sparked my concern was the murder of a 45-year-old teacher, Robert Symonds, stabbed to death by a burglar in his Putney home, while his children slept upstairs. It was clear that had Mr Symonds got hold of his kitchen knife before the burglar, and stabbed the intruder, it was the teacher who would have been the one facing a murder charge.
Anyway, our campaign caught on, and Mr Blair said in the Commons that he "shared the view" that people should be allowed to use whatever force was necessary in defence of their homes. Of course, nothing happened ... except that the Home Office showered the country with leaflets purporting to explain how the current law worked to the advantage of all.
That was very characteristic of New Labour. It has always believed that the production of millions of brochures advertising its deep care for all the people of the country will have the effect of persuading the public that day by day, in every way, we are getting better and better. So I am undismayed when a newspaper, however vulgar its manner, dares to suggest that the Emile Coué self-hypnosis method is not the best way to sum up the state of the nation.
Perhaps Terry Grange, too, should try to consider that complacency is as much the enemy of competence as craven concessions to the "tabloid agenda." For example, Mr Grange was implicitly critical of the Home Office's dramatic response to the killing of John Monckton by Damien Hanson just after Hanson had been let out after serving six years of a 12-year sentence for attempted murder (on an assessment that he was "91 per cent likely to reoffend"), Yet the head of the Probation Service, Sir Andrew Bridges, admitted in his own report on the Monckton case that the service's actions had been "utterly extraordinary" and that there had been an "overall collective failure by the London probation arm".
So perhaps the red-top editors were not being irresponsible, after all. They, it's true, have always been gripped by the issue of violent crime, in a way which other newspapers have not. That is because so many of their readers, who might live on council estates, or in the more deprived areas of the country, are more vulnerable to violent crime than the sort of people who read this newspaper, or The Guardian or The Times.
I was struck at the time by the fact that only The Sun and the Mirror produced editorials on Sir Andrew Bridges' report. The so-called serious press that day were united in thinking that the latest twist in the saga of Tessa Jowell's mortgage was of greater public importance. That, I believe, was not high-minded. It was frivolous.
Nevertheless, the Chief Constable's criticism of this government's working methods has a very sound point at its heart, even if it contains too much special pleading. Unlike previous governments, which would decide what its policies were and then seek to present them as well as possible, Mr Blair has always believed a policy can not even exist unless it can be wrapped up to be acceptable to the media. That, in part, is why he insisted on an Order in Council to give Alastair Campbell the power to order civil servants what to do and had him sit in on Cabinet meetings.
In his pomp, Campbell did not just terrorise ministers and civil servants. He manipulated tabloid newspaper editors (he didn't care much about the others) by threatening them with isolation from his exclusives unless they printed the sort of headlines he wanted. Like all people who have endured humiliation, the editors are now taking great pleasure in getting their own back. It's not a pretty sight. But, asked to choose between a press humbled by politicians, and politicians humbled by the press, I know which state of affairs is healthier.Reuse content