Ian Burrell: Tony Blair may have faced the 'feral beast', but it was nothing compared to the John Major years

 

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The "feral beast" of Fleet Street which Tony Blair complained had tormented him during his time in office was about as savage as a sheep in comparison to the media monster that poor old John Major had to contend with.

It might seem extraordinary to a younger generation grown used to the hectoring powers of the right wing papers that a Conservative Prime Minister might be the subject of relentless personal attack from the Tory press. But Mr Major's problem was that the anonymous sources feeding the onslaught were often his senior political colleagues.

Even yesterday, as he gave evidence to Lord Leveson's inquiry, Mr Major still appeared a bit bewildered by the coverage he received. Each morning as Prime Minister he opened the papers and, in his words: "I learned what I thought that I didn't think, what I said that I hadn't said, what I was about to do that I wasn't about to do."

The myth-telling continues. Earlier this year the former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie cheerily recounted to the inquiry a conversation he had with Mr Major in 1992 at the time of the Black Wednesday crash in the stock market. "I said 'I've got a bucket of shit on my desk, Prime Minister, and I'm going to pour it all over you'." Denying one of the great tales of Fleet Street lore, Mr Major yesterday claimed that MacKenzie's account of the conversation was unrecognisable to him. "I would have recalled the bit that has entered mythology. I'm sure I would have not forgotten that." Whatever Mr Major might say about the phone call, MacKenzie's description of the Murdoch paper's treatment of his administration was at the very least an accurate metaphor. Similar language even made the front page of the Sunday Express one weekend in 1996 at the end of Mr Major's tenure, as he complained to the paper that senior members of his party were briefing against him. "Bunch of Shits" was the memorable headline. He wasn't asked yesterday if he recalled that remark.

Mr Major also admitted that the hostile treatment may have been linked to his view that cosying up to the press was "undignified". The result was that even traditional Tory supporting papers found it hard to sympathise with the son of a circus performer.

It only remained for the satirical puppet show Spitting Image to portray him with battleship grey skin and the left wing cartoonist Steve Bell to picture him with his pants outside his trousers. It may not have been true, but it became part of the Major media myth.

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