Steve Richards: Open contempt for politicians is neither daring nor clever

An attack on Gordon Brown makes you part of the pack, safely protected
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The Independent Online

If you want to understand why political leaders are neurotically obsessed with the media, take a look at the reaction to the departure of Damian McBride. The saga of the emails is significant and might become more so, but I have not observed so much hypocritical, sanctimonious hand-wringing since the last time a parochial story about the interplay between politicians and the media erupted.

As I wrote on Tuesday the saga is seriously damaging to Gordon Brown. It raises questions about his judgement, the way he runs Downing Street and it severely limits his capacity to attack the Conservatives legitimately in the future. The consequences are still to have been fully played out and yesterday's Prime Ministerial apology was a sign of desperate weakness rather than a display of humble strength. The words will not bring closure.

Yet anyone would believe from some of the coverage that an impurity has been discovered in an otherwise pure world. McBride's suggestions were a squalidly amateurish initiative compared with the tidal waves of much more professionally delivered bile that have washed over Labour politicians over the years.

The Sunday Times alleged that Michael Foot was linked with the KGB. Neil Kinnock was portrayed as evil, dangerous and mad. On the day of his by-election in Chesterfield Tony Benn was portrayed as insane by the Sun. Cherie Blair, the wife of a politician, was frequently described as a wicked witch. The entire New Labour spin operation and the timid policies that accompanied it were set up not out of arrogance but from a defensive fear of being destroyed by newspapers and now the internet.

The creator of the Guido Fawkes website, Paul Staines, is in my view one of the most influential figures in the British media. One day this week I heard five items on the Today programme that followed up his stories or his observations. Politicians have not learnt how to cope with an individual who has as much impact as entire newspapers. He is one of the reasons why Derek Draper, the recipient of McBride's emails, felt the need for a left of centre equivalent.

On the Guido Fawkes website Brown is described as the Prime Mentalist and portrayed as bonkers. If you happen to be an ally of the Prime Minister, or indeed the Prime Minister himself, you might wish to put a slightly different point of view.

Conveying a different point of view can be a risky business. We have reached one of those phases where anyone in the media who defends the government is ridiculed or attacked, a reverse police state. It is why a leader clings to the likes of McBride on the misguided basis that they will protect them and get their message across in a hostile environment. It is not so easy.

When Draper set up the website Labourlist he became an immediate target of right-wing sites. They were quite open about why they were attacking him. He was supporting the government and they regarded this as unacceptable. They pointed out, rightly, that sites like the brilliantly innovative ConservativeHome contained criticism of the Tory leadership. But what they did not acknowledge was that there are plenty of places to go if you wish to find strong support for the Conservatives' leadership. There is almost nowhere to find anyone putting arguments that highlight the positive impact of some government policies.

Yet in another bizarre twist, in spite of the never-ending onslaughts on Brown and the government in the media, many of them justified, the right-wing bloggers accuse political journalists of colluding with the Brown regime, of dancing to McBride's tunes. Anyone would think Brown has had a good press over the last couple of years and that no one knew about his use of allies to take on opponents.

The truth is that this character trait is well known and its significance is to some extent overstated. In recent days, to take one example, I have read that Brown destroyed the careers of Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and Charles Clarke because they were all potential leadership figures.

I know and like the trio, but blaming Brown is a convenient excuse for their limited ministerial lives. Milburn resigned once from the cabinet, returned supposedly to run the 2005 election campaign, and was undermined by his friend Tony Blair who called on Brown to return to the fray and seize control. Byers resigned as Transport Secretary after apparently misleading the Commons. Blair removed Clarke from the Home Office because of the row over foreign prisoners.

All these people had bruising clashes with Brown and his aides, but their careers ended for other reasons. However neatly it fits the current narrative they were not taken out and dealt with by McBride in the middle of the night.

These incestuous dances between media, spin doctors and politicians lead always to a mad giddiness. The degree to which Brown has successfully destroyed internal opponents is exaggerated and yet parts of the media are being attacked by other parts for not exposing the brutality. One newspaper column this week, hailed by the right-wing bloggers, condemned the way journalists protected their sources. Yet the same column made a series of assertions based on conversations with sources who remained protected. It all gets very silly when the dance takes off.

The silliest twist of all is that the likes of Guido Fawkes have a reputation for challenging orthodoxy. But in his open loathing of politicians he reinforces orthodoxy. He joins hands with Armando Iannucci, the creator of The Thick of It and In The Loop, parts of the BBC, Channel 4, some newspapers and most voters. In picking on Brown he also follows the fashion. The easiest column to write is an attack on Brown. You are part of the pack, safely protected by hundreds of other articles and blogs all making the same points and you know you will be showered with praise for your boldness. If anyone writes a defence they will be slaughtered for being tame.

Will some newspapers and the bloggers turn on Cameron and the Conservatives if they win the next election? It depends on what the government is like. John Major got bashed around by the newspapers and would have been attacked by the bloggers if there had been a vibrant internet, but he was not as right-wing or eurosceptic as Margaret Thatcher. If Cameron implements the eurosceptic, small-state, pro-family policies he is currently advocating, I suspect the internet vandals will become cheerleaders, in the way that Thatcher enjoyed a largely supportive media. In the US the high-profile bloggers were great cheerleaders for President Bush. My guess is that Labour's next leader must be prepared to be the one that is duffed up, even in opposition.

The McBride saga is not over. I would not be surprised if speculation resumes about the future of Brown's leadership in the coming weeks. But spare us, please, any more piety from those who know politics is partly and unavoidably a bloody, multi-layered battle between two sides. They know because they have become part of the battle.