Why Major should heed the press

So the Prime Minister defied the exhortations of the right-wing newspapers. More fool him
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The Independent Online
Since John Major's "victory" there has been a good deal of confused analysis of the role of the press. On the one hand, with the exception of the Express group, the Tory papers have been uniformly and virulently anti-Major. On the other hand, Major won. Therefore, it is said, the power of the press is not what it was thought to be. Conservative MPs turned their back on the editors of whom they were supposed to be so afraid.

This has provoked debate because it follows a long period in which conventional wisdom held that the press was as powerful as - or more powerful than - the Government. The Prime Minister, as Norman Lamont pointed out in a bitter speech on his return to the backbenches, has been feebly over- sensitive to editorial comment and the general weakness of Major's administration has created a power vacuum which the newspapers appeared to be filling.

Most vividly, the absurd "back to basics" posture opened a whole new moral playground for tabloids and broadsheets alike - in effect the press was invited to pass definitive judgment on every private foible of every public figure. And that, gleefully, is just what it did.

With this power apparently called into question, the analysis has focused on what the papers will do now that they are definitively stuck with a Conservative administration which they still hold in contempt. They can, in theory, say "vote Labour" at the next general election - after all, Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair are currently conducting a very public mating dance. But of course the editors' hearts wouldn't be in it. They might say "vote Blair" because they like the look of the man, but they still hate his party. The only real meaning of a "vote Blair" position would be: "don't vote Major".

So the leadership contest has robbed the Tory press of an easy way of being Tory, at least for the next couple of years. And this in turn has exposed the increasing fragmentation of the right within newspapers - a fragmentation that both mirrors that of the Conservative Party and of its constituency.

The Toryness of the Tory press has never been a simple quality. The Sun, for example, rouses the working-class right with hard nationalism and robust lampooning of the least popular aspects of the left - gay rights, social workers, trade unions and so on. In the middle market the Daily Mail and Daily Express pursue the same agenda, but with the addition of more middle-class concerns such as taxation, house prices, family values and public morals.

Both sectors play on fears of being overrun by aliens - racial or cultural - and their values, or of being impoverished by an out-of-control welfare society and a government failure to look after its own.

In the up-market sector the underlying contradiction becomes apparent. This is the contradiction between economics and culture, and it is one now visibly embodied within the Telegraph group and in, for example, the strange gyrations of William Rees-Mogg's column in the Times.

The conflict within the Telegraph is well known. On the one hand there is an old, one-nation Tory editor, Max Hastings; on the other his new- right deputy, Simon Heffer, and a highly moralistic editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Charles Moore, both of whom, interestingly, have political ambitions. Above them all is the hard-right proprietor, Conrad Black.

They are united in their contempt for John Major but divided in their preferred solutions. Hastings wants a centrist Tory government that is, unlike this one, capable of shame and the honourable resignation. Heffer and Moore want a rightist, Euro-sceptic party. The Times, meanwhile, inclines towards Portillo, a solution with a more modernist, technocratic edge than any advanced by the Telegraph.

The problem for them all is: what does it now mean to be Conservative? It may mean an aggressive pursuit of global competitiveness, a rapidly modernising, ruthlessly capitalist society gearing up to face the challenge of the East. But it may alternatively mean the sustenance of Britishness against the threat of globalisation, whether from Brussels or the Pacific Rim. Intellectually the two can, of course, be combined, but in practical, political terms, they are at odds. Rees-Mogg, both a globalist and a culturalist, is the Tory most interestingly trapped by the contradiction.

The real problem this creates for the press is not simply whom to support at the next election, but rather what its readership really wants. There are many theories about what sells newspapers, but there is only one view about what makes a newspaper a genuine success - it must be at one with, or at least understand, its readership.

It is often said that the precise political posture of a paper is unimportant to its readers, a view often supported by the way that many Sun buyers seem unaware that it is a right-wing paper. But this is a superficial analysis. In practice, newspapers are much more than just their leader columns - they are suffused by their politics. Sun readers may vote Labour, but they will still respond to the paper's nationalism. Equally, Mail readers are drawn not by that paper's support for the Tories, but by its whole tone and cultural positioning. John Redwood's much-vaunted cleverness has proved an elusive quality, but it was certainly on display when he listed one of his hobbies as "not reading the Guardian".

This is precisely the hobby shared by a huge number of natural Tory voters on the basis of a vast range of cultural prejudices against dubious, avant- garde art, gay rights and, only incidentally, party politics. If you understand your readership, such prejudices are embodied in every sentence and every picture.

But the press's problem is that "natural Tory voters" are a dwindling, fissiparous and increasingly incomprehensible bunch. The faith, especially of the middle-market papers, has always been that there is a sturdy "silent majority" of sound-thinking, hard-working types who know which side their bread is buttered and who will, therefore, vote Tory when the heat is on. But this silent majority has also felt the pain of the economics-culture contradiction. Sure, they want to wave the flag once in a while - but for this Royal Family, for this crime-ridden, ill-educated society? Probably not. And, sure, they want low taxes, but they also want their public-sector jobs, their student grants and their hospitals.

Knee-jerk nationalism or dry economics only work if you can be persuaded that abroad is worse and unfettered capitalism is comfortable. These days, they obviously aren't.

There are, as a result, no strong, simple Tory slogans any more. The Express group may pretend there are, but the other Tory papers are facing the real difficulties. Global reality and cultural decay have exposed the complexities at the heart of right-wing politics and the papers have found that neither one candidate nor one slogan will bring them back into line with their confused and anxious readerships.

Perversely, perhaps, I take all this to mean that though the press may not be more powerful than the Government, it is certainly more important. Major's victory has consigned the party to a fantasy land in which almost anything but the real issues will be addressed. The papers that opposed him were not wrong; nor, by doing so, did they expose their impotence. Rather, they showed that, unlike Major's Tory party, they are facing, perhaps reluctantly, the rapidly changing nature of the electorate/readership. Westminster is dead; Fleet Street - maybe wrong-headed, maybe desperate - is, at least, alive.