Matthew Norman: Trial by media may be grubby, but it is also necessary

At least Mr Blunkett had a trial, which is more than he cared to grant the suspects he detained
Click to follow
The Independent Online

And so, sluggishly at first but sure to gain speed in the days ahead, the Blunkett backlash begins. That exhausted old phrase "it was all got up by the press" has yet to enjoy a run out, but already one notes the sentiment welling in the breasts of public, political and even journalistic opinion.

And so, sluggishly at first but sure to gain speed in the days ahead, the Blunkett backlash begins. That exhausted old phrase "it was all got up by the press" has yet to enjoy a run out, but already one notes the sentiment welling in the breasts of public, political and even journalistic opinion.

Perhaps you feel that way yourself. Perhaps you agree with Andy Burnham MP, until Wednesday Mr Blunkett's PPS, that "we can't live in a culture where making a few mistakes - a few honest mistakes - is a hanging offence". You may even approve of the Prime Minister's parting reassurance to Mr Blunkett, hinting at a media witch-hunt, that "you leave the Government with your integrity intact".

If so, I ask you to think again. David Blunkett went for compelling reasons - abuse of power, financial irregularities, cuckoldry and verbal incontinence to name four - while the press played its distasteful role of sewer rather than sewerage with real distinction. There are no heroes in this wretched, faintly rancid affair, but the only people to perform their public function correctly have been the hacks. As one who has made a good chunk of his living for years by chronicling some of the hypocrisies of this trade, it goes against the grain to write this.

A sycophantic twerp of a very rare order indeed, Andy Burnham ascribes his boss's downfall to "trial by media". One could observe that at least he had a trial, which is more than than Mr Blunkett cared to grant the foreign terrorist suspects whose detention in HMP Belmarsh the law lords declared unlawful yesterday. More to the point, for the errant politician "trial by media" has become the only sort of trial there is.

Irksome as the cliché has become, we live in something close to an elective dictatorship. This administration has, since taking power, placed itself above the traditional rules of political life. Mr Blair has taken us to war in defiance of the known facts and the will of the country. He has trousered cheques from billionaires to turn stated policy on its head. He has sanctioned the manipulation of the press he affects to disdain, to smear perceived potential rivals.

He has taken freebie holidays from the repressive Egyptian regime and from that laureate of political corruption, Silvio Berlusconi. He has intervened personally with Berlusconi over a proposed satellite television sale, on behalf of his supreme commander Rupert Murdoch, and has had a quiet word in the Romanian leader's shell-like (there is something ineffably Arthur Daleyish about our premier) to facilitate a sweet steel deal for Lakshmi Mittal, whose business Mr Blair laughably insisted was "British".

He has suggested, hilariously, that his wife spent half a million on those Bristol flats without him ever knowing the first thing about it. He has railed against the wickedness of Saddam in the morning and taken the barely less odious Assad of Syria to tea with the Queen that afternoon. The pious figure who so humanely supported Mr Blunkett couldn't bring himself to stay an extra five minutes in the House to hear Ron Davies, removed for a slightly more trivial romantic misdemeanour, make his resignation speech.

He has, in short, proved himself a scoundrel and a hypocrite again and again and again. How he has survived at all is something for tomorrow's political historians to explain, but one thing is clear: without a press that has erred, if anything, towards overindulging him, he'd have got clean away with the lot of it.

Thanks to the lack of a written constitution and an electoral system that rewards a minority popular vote with an immense parliamentary majority; thanks to the cowardice of his backbenchers and the nihilistic pointlessness of the Opposition; thanks to the rampant careerism of Cabinet colleagues who have reversed every belief they once professed to cherish for their little slice of power; and thanks also to feckless obedience of the "independent" clublanders carefully-selected to investigate and then nuance away charges of governmental wrongdoing, there remains only one effective check to New Labour's inherent dodginess and autocratic instincts.

The wrongdoings of Blair and Blunkett are, by European standards, paltry and pathetic. Snaffling free vacations and doling out taxpayer-funded rail tickets is kindergarten stuff next to vans darting around Paris, doling out bundles of banknotes for unrecorded expenses. Our guv'nor, unlike his chum in Rome, has never been chief suspect in a major bribery case, nor tried to rush through legislation granting himself amnesty from prosecution.

Heartwarming as it would be to ascribe this chasm in corruption to that old sense of British fair play, it's worth making the bleedin' obvious point that French newspapers are shackled by privacy laws while so much of the Italian media resides in the rapacious hands of Signor Berlusconi himself.

British newspapers, even the best of us, can be profoundly unlovely things, quick to pass glib judgement on others and agonisingly slow to confess our own sins. What our grubbier papers retain in their safes, and how they come by some of their information, hardly bears contemplating.

Only a deranged fantasist overdosing on mescaline, then, could see Her Majesty's press as a paradigm of moral cleanliness. So scorn and loathe it if you choose. But do so in the knowledge that, at this oddly dangerous point in our democratic history, it is the only effective barrier between a roguish, ruthless British government and the creation of a country in which very few of us would care to live.