Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Our rulers have fallen into disrepute, and they can only blame themselves

Politicians have finally grasped the full extent of this public contempt

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When Tony Blair left office the summer before last, he took a parting swipe at the "feral media". His phrase has been echoed recently with approval by one commentator: a species of what might be called self-hating journalists has insisted for years that the fault lay with our trade, the malign and mephitic messengers who were fouling the honourable atmosphere of political life.

After the publication of the Hutton report in early 2004, not only did Alastair Campbell preen himself on his victory, while the chairman and director-general of the BBC were forced to resign, but columnists and editors – out of charity or mere weariness I shan't name them for the moment – could be found saying that Hutton was entirely correct, the Blair government wholly innocent of any misrepresentation of the reasons for the Iraq war, and journalism itself purely to blame.

As Harold Wilson didn't quite say, five years is a long time in politics. The grotesque episodes of the two Damians (what a lot of them there seem to be) have merely intensified a public mood of contempt for politicians which needed no encouragement by the media, feral or otherwise. Gordon Brown himself is irreparably tainted by the way his hireling Damian McBride tried to smear Tories, in a manner so despicable that it has horrified the least politically conscious citizens, and even us old geezers who thought we'd seen everything.

And although Jacqui Smith is hanging on grimly to her job, having decided, as Lloyd George would have said, to perish with her drawn salary in her hand, the true story of how and why Damian Green was arrested comes on top of her expenses claims for her "second home", and her husband's exotic taste in movies. The Home Secretary is now not so much a lame duck as a dead duck, devoid of any authority, more discredited than any minister for years past, and more useful to the Opposition the longer she remains in office.

Politicians have finally grasped the full extent of this public contempt. An MP of whatever party who tries to explain away the racket of parliamentary expenses in front of an audience is shouted down. Even when ministers want to apologise, no one listens to them. As if any more illustrations were needed of the new disrepute into which our rulers have fallen again, a cabinet minister was jeered on Wednesday when he tried to convey the Government's sorrow at the deaths of innocent people. Admittedly, it might have been more tactful to send someone other than an Everton supporter to address the Liverpool fans, not to say someone less clownish than Andy Burnham, but then there is no minister who can now quieten the mob.

It's notable that we've heard no blaming of the messenger this week. Three years ago, John Lloyd of the Financial Times published What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. He claimed – and he was echoed by other journalists – that the media had become cynical, sneering, derisive about all politicians, and thus corrosive of the elementary trust on which democratic politics must rest.

Much can indeed be said against the mass media, in most countries and not least in this, today as much than ever. That applies to radio and television in the age of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, and of the internet and blogosphere, although these can be forces for democratic accountability, as our rulers are learning the hard way. And it's true of the ubiquitous lenses, which are another "medium" and which now watch all of us beyond Big Brother's dreams, although the mobile camera is also a shield against abuses of power, as the Metropolitan Police have likewise learned: thanks to a story which began with those flickering pictures, a policeman may yet be prosecuted for manslaughter.

Far from least it applies to newspapers, and not only the red-top end of the press. More than 40 years ago, the late Conor Cruise O'Brien witheringly described the London popular press with its "cockiness, ignorance, carelessness, prurience, innuendo, and lip-service to the highest moral standards". It was an excellent description, to which one would have to add that the words might now be used of all our papers, at any rate at their worst.

But "what the media are doing", which looked a little shaky even at the time as a thesis, is now completely unsustainable. When all is said against journalists and journalism, we can see that the problem begins with our rulers, and not those who report their doings. Lloyd's case collapses at a crucial point. The greatest single dereliction of duty by the press for years past was not corrosive scepticism about politicians but the exact opposite: the servile credulity with which so many journalists swallowed a patently fraudulent case for a needless and illegal war.

If anything has changed dangerously for the worse in my lifetime it's our political culture rather than "the media". One of the characteristics of New Labour is that no one ever resigns unless forced to, and almost no one ever is. In 1947, Hugh Dalton was obliged to depart as chancellor after the most minor and harmless slip. Today there seems to be nothing Jacqui Smith can do, however disgraceful, which unfits her for office, at least in Brown's eyes.

It was not the media who forced Blair to hire Campbell, or Brown to hire McBride, and Charlie Whelan before him. And much as the Tories are making hay out of the McBride and Green affairs, who made David Cameron take on Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, as his media adviser?

Nor has public disaffection been fed by mendacious reporting. Beastly as the Daily Beast can be, it didn't make up the news that the Labour MP Harry Cohen had claimed more than £300,000 in second home allowances while listing a caravan as his "main home", nor the fact that the Tory Caroline Spelman had put her nanny on exes.

I can think of times when I've been ashamed to be a journalist. But was it the media that "outed" David Kelly until he opened his veins six years ago? No, if the snapping fangs of my feral colleagues managed fatally to gnaw the present Government, it would be a victory not for the malign power of the press but for decency and honesty.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include 'The Strange Death of Tory England'

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