Steve Richards: Don't blame the headline writers. It was Downing St wot started it!

'Objectively we all know this is going to be a long haul'
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The Independent Online

Objectively we all know this is going to be a long haul. Even if the Taliban collapse tomorrow and Osama bin Laden is captured the next day it will not be the end of the matter. It will not be the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. Terrorists are scattered around the world. Some of them are being "harboured" by countries that have joined the international coalition against terrorism. Others are probably in a bed and breakfast in Marble Arch.

This is obvious. Not all the terrorists are in an Afghan cave with Mr bin Laden. Quite possibly, not even Mr bin Laden is in an Afghan cave. So why is it that after only a few weeks, the media and some voters are losing patience with what is a nightmarishly complex enterprise? There seems to be growing bewilderment in Britain that the Taliban are still in power and that Mr bin Laden remains in his cave or in his own B&B in Marble Arch.

The Government is in no doubt about who is to blame. Ministers berate the demands of the modern, impatient 24-hour news media. They curse Mr bin Laden's easy access to his audience in the form of his uninterrupted monologues, while they face interviews, press conferences and probing editorials. Jack Straw has been particularly critical. He began last week attacking the restlessness of news outlets and ended it by blaming Tony Blair's public discomfiture in Syria on the appetite of journalists for news conferences. It would all have been much more straightforward in the Middle East, he implied, if no one had asked any damned awkward questions.

Normally in these circuitous debates about the media and spin, I have some sympathy for those doing the spinning. This places me in a very small and unfashionable group – a journalist who recognises that much of the time the likes of Alastair Campbell are fighting a losing battle against hundreds of journalists who spin their own agendas in newspapers. Those agendas are often followed up by broadcasters who, because they are not allowed or are disinclined to have opinions of their own, report the Daily Mail's agenda instead. But in the current situation the ministers and their spinners do not have a leg to stand on. It is they who have actively encouraged the urgent, impatient tone of the coverage. The media is dancing to their tunes. Indeed quite often the media has been more restrained than the hyped-up politicians.

The first mistake of political leaders was to present this complicated long haul as a "war". President Bush did so almost right away. At first Mr Blair did not make the same error and was praised in some quarters – including this one – for his linguistic restraint. Perhaps this was not the praise Mr Blair was looking for. The very day he was praised in this column he adopted the wretched phrase. Some of his cabinet colleagues refuse to do so, including Clare Short, who is looking and sounding a little uneasy again. She is right. The words imply a clarity of objectives and outcome that is misleading when the enemy is such a sinister blur. In the early weeks, the notion of a "war" notched up the excitement in the media. What were the war aims? What was the endgame? The rest of the world versus the Taliban in an old fashioned war? No problem.

The excitement in the media was heightened when the US proclaimed within days that they had control of the skies above Afghanistan. This was the equivalent of Manchester United boasting about a victory over Scarborough, but gave the impression of an important staging post on the way to a speedy victory. So did Mr Blair's statement last month that the next few weeks would be the "testing time". This was widely interpreted as a signal that the decisive land war was about to begin. These interpretations were not denied by Downing Street.

A few days later there was indeed some activity on the ground. Some newspapers declared that this was the start of the ground war, and again these reports were not contradicted at first. This remains a curious episode. Was it the intention to begin a ground war, only for the US to change its mind and continue the bombings instead? If not, what "testing time" was Mr Blair referring to?

Either way it is easy to understand why the media got excited by these developments that only later turned into non-developments. They point to the wider political danger for Mr Blair that I discussed last week, of being culpable for the military strategy in Britain without having much control over it.

Last weekend the media got excited again by briefings on the speech that Mr Blair was to deliver the following Tuesday. Apparently he was to put the moral case for the war with a Churchillian flourish. So precise were the briefings that the media obtained reaction to what Mr Blair was going to say before he said it. Only what Mr Blair said on Tuesday did not match the briefings. Wisely he was more restrained. Even so the media had been encouraged to get excited for several days.

The Downing Street entourage is treating the media now rather as it did on the domestic front when the Labour Party first secured power in 1997. It feels that the tyrannical news machine has to be fed hourly with new information or lines. After the first election win, a visit by Mr Blair to a council estate was hailed as a revolution in welfare reform. These days, domestic policies are more or less allowed to speak for themselves. But the obsession with the war message comes at a time when I do not detect any appetite among the media for contrived activity. After all, there are a lot of genuinely interesting developments around the world to keep even the BBC, a news organisation that is never knowingly understaffed, fully occupied.

There is a need for a subtle change of tone and volume. France is contributing to the military action. In Germany, the Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and indeed his Green partners in the coalition, have been active in the international diplomatic effort. The tone in both countries has not been so frenzied or self-important as in Britain.

Probably events will take their natural course. The trains are still hopeless and so is the Tube. The NHS is under familiar strain. Interesting policy developments are taking place behind the scenes. A domestic agenda will reassert itself and the appalling terrorist threat will be reduced to background noise without ever going away completely. In the meantime, if the media is getting over-excited it is almost certainly because the Government has worked it up.

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