Mark Steel: You almost have to feel sorry for Gordon Brown

If she isn't careful the 'Sun' will tie Mrs Janes in a deal like a record company
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The Independent Online

Now Gordon Brown's got the Sun against him, so every morning he gets up to see whether he's on their front page for losing everyone's money, or deliberately driving a caravan over a disabled child's tortoise or sneezing phlegm over the Crown Jewels or whatever they say he's done that day.

The Labour Party dismisses the Sun's decision to support Cameron, and some prominent Labour MPs have derided the paper as a grubby rag they're not bothered about anyway. Which would be fair enough if their leaders hadn't spent the last 15 years going: "Ooh Mr Murdoch you look hot today if I may say so, we'd LOVE to come to your island, what shall we put in the Budget, Mr Murdoch 'cos you know best, any laws you'd like us to pass? You can have Cherie for 20 minutes if you like."

But you almost have to feel sorry for Brown at the moment, as the Sun has printed a letter he sent to Jacqui Janes, the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, which she says was "disrespectful." So he called her personally and now they've printed the whole conversation, in which she told him the letter was "an insult", because "there were 25 spelling mistakes".

So what was he supposed to do at that point? He could hardly say: "Well Mrs Janes, in a moment I'd like to raise the matter of my condolences about your son, but first let's go through those spellings one by one. First – 'accommodation' – definitely two 'm's."

In some ways Brown did better than you'd think during this phone call, because you'd expect him to answer the charge of insulting fallen war heroes with bad spelling by saying: "If I can answer your point, this is why we are pressing ahead with exciting and bold initiatives on supplementary literacy lessons in key stage 4 and above in all secondary schools in a measure to commence in September 2011." Or offer her a job as an alphabet tsar.

You can forgive Mrs Janes anything, given the circumstances, but the Sun has made a front-page issue of this spelling business, claiming his tatty handwriting proves his lack of concern for soldiers, which seems a slight exaggeration. They might have had a point if he'd sent his condolences in the form of a limerick. Or if he'd sent a text with a grumpy face on it. Or if he'd reversed the charges when he made the call. But in the list of priorities when dealing with a war, accurate punctuation must come a fair way down. This is why, as far as I know, none of the First World War poets wrote "Worse than the crash of the shells sent to bomb us, General Haig writes a dash where he ought to put commas."

Even so, the front page, then two more pages, then a page of the whole conversation, then a cartoon are dedicated to this story, and you can hear the whole taped call on a website. Tomorrow there'll be an advert with a picture of a pouting woman in a nurse's outfit, saying: "Ring 0898 600 500 to hear Naughty Naomi read out the whole letter with spicy spelling."

The Sun has declared Mrs Janes "Mum at War," and the poor woman is their weapon for the week for belittling Brown. If she's not careful they'll tie her into a deal like a record company, and she'll be barred from displaying any grief or anger anywhere except by a Sun reporter, who will have full exclusive rights to print them, mash them into a dance track or whatever they fancy.

Yet strangely, they were the most enthusiastic supporters of the war in Afghanistan, even depicting politicians who opposed the war as wobbling jellies. You'd think that it might have occurred to them that this could involve an element of danger, what with wars in Afghanistan tending to fall a bit short when it comes to health and safety.

So now they protest the reason for the deaths is the lack of helicopters and suitable jackets, but they could suggest another method which could radically reduce the risks, which is to no longer fight the war at all, the major success of which has been to give Afghans the democratic right to not to vote for a corrupt leader in a fiddled election that's re-run and cancelled.

But Brown can't criticise the war, just as he can't criticise the Sun, or the other people making his life a misery, because he's spent the last 15 years supporting them.

So the poor man bumbles along, and if he rings Mrs Janes again, the conversation will probably end with him saying: "I don't know where to turn," and her replying: "Mr Brown, please accept my condolences, I can't imagine what it must be like to be in your position right now. I know this was the job you always wanted but there was also the chance it could turn out this way I suppose. Try and stay strong, Mr Brown, you poor poor thing."

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