Mr Blair is falling off the tiger, and it's no good him mewling about it

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The Independent Online

The key point to understanding the genius of Tony Blair, I was once told by an admirer now in his Cabinet, was his handling of the media. Ten years ago this month he seized the leadership of the Labour Party because he had seen that the disillusionment of the Thatcherite press with John Major presented a great opportunity - one he exploited with ruthless charm and skill.

The key point to understanding the genius of Tony Blair, I was once told by an admirer now in his Cabinet, was his handling of the media. Ten years ago this month he seized the leadership of the Labour Party because he had seen that the disillusionment of the Thatcherite press with John Major presented a great opportunity - one he exploited with ruthless charm and skill.

Since then he has ridden the tiger of the media - a bigger and quicker beast than ever before - with more success than most of his predecessors at No 10. But now he is slipping off. If tiger-riding were a sport, he would no longer be world champion. And, being English, he blames the referee.

The darkening of the Prime Minister's resentment at what he sees as media bias against him was apparent before the Iraq war and has become more so since. The titanic feud with the BBC over its reporting of the doubts of David Kelly, the late government scientist, and the war by proxy against Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, waged by Alastair Campbell, Blair's former press secretary, are well known.

But now the Prime Minister has given vent to his private rage at being denied the perfectly good goal of getting his version of the truth across. It seems that his paranoia about journalism is at least as deep and as wide as Harold Wilson's. John Lloyd's book What The Media Are Doing To Our Politics was published last week. It is an argument that the "bias against understanding" that John Birt and Peter Jay detected in television reporting in 1975 has spread throughout the media and, combined with Paxmanism (the belief that all politicians are born liars and rogues), makes it difficult for democracy to function. It is an important and powerfully argued thesis, right in its analysis even if its conclusions are doubtful. But what is most interesting is a postscript, four pages of quotation attributed to "a senior member of the present (2004) Cabinet", who is obviously Blair himself.

Behind this thin veil of deniability, the Prime Minister complains bitterly that "in every 'scandal' in which the Government has been involved, most of what was written and broadcast was wrong and no one held any of the people who wrote these things to account". The Press Complaints Commission - to which he has appealed several times - is "useless". The only exception was the Hutton report, but even then "the media transformed Lord Hutton, who was pretty irreproachable, into a government stooge within 48 hours".

The Gilligan-Kelly-Hutton affair is central to the media bias thesis. For Lloyd, and Blair, it is a simple case of sloppy misreporting compounded by the BBC's refusal to correct its mistakes. They are right about that; the BBC's failings, as a publicly funded broadcaster, were inexcusable. Where they go awry, it seems to me, is: (a) the suggestion that this is part of a conspiracy between God and the universe to deny Blair recognition that his was a just war; and (b) the implication that there should be some mechanism for "holding the media to account".

The point, surely, is that the Iraq war was a divisive event which prompted its supporters to see Andrew Gilligan's report as mostly untrue and its opponents as mostly true. In a free media culture, all evidence and opinion will be hotly contested. Freedom of expression is the worst way of arriving at an approximation of the truth - apart from all the others.

At one point in his interview with Lloyd, Blair - sorry, "a senior member of the Cabinet" - seems to recognise this. "It's up to the media to hold itself to account; there's nothing much we can do in a democracy."

Whatever happened to the feline self-control of the early Blair, able to insinuate himself with the proprietors, editors and senior journalists of essentially conservative newspapers? It seems he cannot keep up the pretence, and 10 years is an awfully long time to keep smiling and stroking the sympathies of people with whom he has no natural affinity. Lloyd's mystery interviewee still avoids spelling out what he thinks of the Daily Mail's editor, but the sense is clear: "The Daily Mail is an extraordinary product. It springs from the head of Paul Dacre, who has the kind of prejudices and beliefs no one knows about. I won't go into them. But he is accountable to no one. He has absolute and unaccountable power." Blair still has the Murdoch newspapers in his pocket, thanks to the promise of a referendum on the EU constitution; but if that referendum is ever held, he could lose them too. And of course the media generally are biased against him, just as they were biased in his favour for a remarkably long time. It is true that his government's achievements do not get the recognition that he, John Lloyd and I think they deserve. But that is politics. It is up to Blair to find new ways to make his case.

Whether he still has the capacity and the appetite for that task will remain the big question for the 10 months between now and the likely date of the next election. It is a question Blair posed in his conference speech last autumn, declaring his intention to do something no Labour government had done before, "to renew in power, as we renewed to achieve power". I thought for a moment, listening to him, that he was about to announce that he was standing down in favour of Gordon there and then. Then I realised that he and his speechwriters were too self-absorbed to have noticed that nuance.

Blair is determined to show that he still has the appetite for the job (not the "appetite for power" as the biased media reported him saying). Part of his answer is in the plans being unveiled - not without a little internal turbulence - for the public services. Part depends on getting past the Butler report on the intelligence failures on Iraq which will be published next week. And part depends on the reshuffle that may come immediately after the by-elections that will be held on the next day, 15 July.

The reshuffle is a more fundamental test of Blair's capacity for renewal - and therefore for turning the tide of media bias, part of which is simply the hunger for the new. He urgently needs to bring younger talent into the Cabinet, to promote a cadre with the ideas and energy to take modernised social democracy forwards. Without a political renewal, journalists will continue to be biased against a government that is beginning to feel hollowed-out. This is not just a matter of preferring "sensation, scandal and confrontation" to "news", as Blair put it to Lloyd, but of the spirit of the times, an evanescent entity which the Prime Minister once so brilliantly manipulated.

If he can no longer ride the tiger that once ran so strongly for him, he has to make way for someone who can, not whinge about how unfair it all is.

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