Dominic Lawson: The power of the press is overestimated

If the Government is determined to stick to a policy, no opinion in a newspaper is going to change it
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Despite the best efforts of New Labour, the House of Lords still has a cachet unique in public life. So it was not surprising that Rupert Murdoch was prepared to spend an hour last Friday explaining to the Lords' Communication Committee the extent of his influence on the political outlook of his British newspapers.

The Palace of Westminster is understandably fascinated by the way in which media tycoons such as Mr Murdoch appear to have more influence on public affairs than any individual member of the legislature. That seems to be the principal reason for the Lords' Committee investigation into what it describes as "how concentrated media ownership affects the balance and diversity of news in a democracy".

Last week I was invited – in a double act with the BBC's Andrew Marr – to give evidence to the Committee. I tried to get across two fundamental points which are not always appreciated by politicians. The first is that the British newspaper industry is immensely competitive and even within the same group there will be stark differences in the political sympathies expressed – for example in recent years The Times has broadly supported New Labour, while The Sunday Times has not. The second point is even more basic: it is not self-evident that the political line taken by newspapers is a decisive influence on public opinion.

As someone who spent 15 years agonising over what line a paper should take on the issues of the day, this is not an admission that comes easily. I had an early insight into this when deputy editor of the Spectator in the late 1980s. On two occasions, when the editor was away, I published editorials which were in direct conflict with the line which he had painstakingly built up over many issues. This was more ignorance than mischief on my part; but what I especially remember is that we never received any letters from readers pointing out our inconsistency. It was as if no one noticed.

A couple of months ago The Daily Telegraph published a leading article mocking Sir Menzies Campbell for his aged appearance. Exactly two weeks later the same paper published another leading article attacking those who used age as an issue to denigrate the then leader of the LibDems. Did any of the Telegraph's readers notice, or care very much? If the paper itself didn't, why should they?

It's true that the great age of the newspaper leading article pre-dated the rise of the columnist. There was a time when there was very little opinion in newspapers, aside from that expressed by the editor through the dominant leader column – and many senior staff journalists would be solely employed in endlessly debating what should appear in it.

Perhaps columnists can have the influence that anonymous leader writers were once said to possess. For obvious reasons, I would like to think so. Earlier this year a reader of this newspaper, a Green Party activist called Huw Peach, wrote to me complaining about my "influence" on the debate about climate change: "If you are wrong and the scientific consensus is right, will you simply apologise to your readers and then move on to your next contrarian position (like David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari over the war on Iraq)?"

Mr Peach insisted that David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari (of this parish) had been "vital for the Government" in persuading "liberal public opinion" – or at least part of it – to support the US-led invasion of Iraq and therefore "bear a tremendous responsibility for the bloodshed in Iraq". I assured Mr Peach that these columnists had not written as they did just to be "contrarian", but because they had genuinely believed that Mr Bush and Mr Blair were right and went on to say that even if those columnists had not backed the war, exactly the same amount of blood would have been shed in Iraq.

That has to be true, but writing such a reply did fill me, as a fellow columnist, with an overwhelming sense of my own irrelevance. I suppose the greater (and more reassuring) truth is that there is a kind of chaotic conversation perpetually going on between the politicians, the press and the public, in which columnists – collectively, at least – have a voice that can be heard in the cacophony.

Yet even when that collective voice is at its loudest and most hectoring it cannot change the policy of the government of the day, if that government is completely determined to stick to its chosen path. In the period leading up to Britain's exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, there was a constant barrage from the allegedly Tory tabloid press of the day, demanding that John Major pull out from the monetary straitjacket of the ERM. Despite having a small majority – and thus much more vulnerable than Mr Blair or Mr Brown have ever been as Prime Minister – Major, as was absolutely his right as leader of what was still the largest party in the Commons, refused to change a discredited policy. As a result, when the pound was finally forced out by currency speculators, press and public opinion turned on the Major government with unusual savagery.

This, by the way, is part of the reason why Gordon Brown is not in the same degree of trouble as Major was then. There were no newspaper campaigns complaining about this Government's policy on banking supervision in the run-up to the collapse of Northern Rock; neither had there been a flood of articles attacking Gordon Brown's merger of the Customs with the Inland Revenue, which is now alleged to be the ultimate reason for the chaos that led to the loss of data involving 25 million child benefit claimants.

It is possible that public opinion will turn on Mr Brown as it would have done even if the press had been able to say: "We told you so." After all, there really were queues of panicking lenders desperate to withdraw their savings from Northern Rock, the first run on a British bank since the 19th century; and there really are millions of people worried that as a result of Government incompetence (at whatever level) their personal bank details could be in the hands of crooks.

These are facts – not opinions; and it is in the uncovering and reporting of news that papers come into their own as influences on public sentiment. Obviously the choice of what an editor puts on his front page can be coloured by his own political outlook – but when the ship of state hits an iceberg, there is not much room for differing shades of opinion. This is not quite what CP Scott meant in 1921 when he said of the British press that: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." It is, however, still true today.