Shifting political loyalty is good news for the press

The end of party allegiances will leave Fleet Street more powerful
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A significant aspect of what has been thus far an enthralling election campaign has been the change in the attitude of the national press. First, there was the switch by The Sun from backing the Tories to supporting Labour. Then at the weekend, Lord Rothermere, chairman of the publishers of the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Evening Standard, said he didn't think "we will actually endorse anybody" although the Evening Standard might favour Labour. And without announcement there has been an important shift in the position of The Express: instead of being obsequiously pro-Tory, the newspaper is covering the election in a manner which, when not even-handed, tends to favour Mr Blair.

In its first day's coverage, The Express had the Prime Minister appearing on his soapbox "held together with tape" while he "struggled" to make himself heard. Tony Blair, on the other hand went "straight" on to the campaign trail, visiting a seat Labour must win, calling for a "new" government and pledging an age of national "renewal". He dubbed himself the "eternal warrior" against complacency. From Labour's point of view these descriptions in The Express are unexpectedly good - straight, new, renewal, warrior.

So long as Labour was the political party of the trades unions, it was perfectly rational for newspaper owners to back the Conservatives. For until the late Eighties the printing unions maintained a stranglehold over newspaper production. In essence, Fleet Street was an unacknowledged workers' co-operative in which the strongest unions took the lion's share of gross profits. Newspapers that backed Labour, such as the owners of The Mirror or The Guardian, satisfied their readers but in so doing they could secure only a profitless prosperity for themselves.

What began as an understandable preference for the Conservative Party in the face of intransigent printing unions led national newspapers to become extensions of the parties' election campaigns rather than observers of them. And this is still going on, though to a much lesser extent. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, is congenitally unable to come to terms with Tory sleaze. The notion makes the paper slightly mad. In the newspaper's universe, sleaze is what foreigners engage in, or Labour local authorities or perhaps even the City of London, but not Tory MPs sitting for constituencies with big Conservative majorities and thousands of Telegraph readers.

Thus on Thursday it produced a headline that will surely stand as the silliest of the election campaign: "Sleaze inquiry entangled in a web of detail". In the same way that the mystifying utterances of schizophrenics can be decoded, so can this. By "sleaze inquiry" is meant Tory MPs and "detail" was a substitute for a word with a similar sound, "deceit". What The Daily Telegraph should have written, but could not bring itself to do, was: "Tory MPs entangled in a web of deceit". The next day came a further indication that the editorial mind had become a little disturbed. The headline of its leader commenting on Sir Gordon Downey's report was "Blair's cover-up".

The Mirror has had a different problem. As the only mass circulation newspaper supporting Labour consistently since The Sun was sold to Rupert Murdoch, it has always unashamedly and openly battled for the Labour Party during elections. That is what its readers have come to expect and its political stance has differentiated it from The Sun, whose move looks opportunistic rather than profound. The Daily Mail's news coverage remains intermittently hostile to Labour and it will be a minor miracle if The Express really has thrown off its Beaverbrook traditions. We shall see. But if the Tory hegemony over the national press has been fractured, The Mirror could begin to distance itself from Labour as its rival has from the Conservative Party.

None of this, however, is of any help to the Liberal Democrats; during the first week of the campaign, newspaper coverage of their doings was perfunctory. National newspapers are never going to be "fair" in the way in which the BBC is compelled to be. If newspapers give up doing propaganda, they will not substitute a tidy, measured notion of balance; they will operate where the significant news appears to be.

In any case, newspapers are more potent than broadcast news during elections. Television and radio coverage, because it is simultaneously compressed and balanced, often loses all meaning. We learn, within a time slot measured in seconds, that party A has proposed something and that parties B and C, separately, think it is a mistake. Then the next item reverses the roles. The form of election news is "statement/rebuttal/rebuttal". Nothing is conveyed by this.

Newspapers do not and will not behave like that. As they leave their old party loyalties behind, and throw their weight around more freely, they will find that they become more powerful rather than less.