Matthew Norman: The Government might deny it, but the Mail still delivers Labour's agenda


Monday 02 March 2009 01:00

Moments of immense national significance can find themselves buried beneath the ephemeral melodrama of a breaking story, so don't reproach yourself if this one passed you by.

For lost amid the hysteria about Sir Fred Goodwin's pension late last week was a statement marking a crucial volte face in the modern history of British governance. "The idea that the Daily Mail sets the agenda for government," Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne told a Commons committee on Thursday, "is in the past." Blimey, what a thing. Our gratitude to that most punctilious of coffee drinkers for openly confessing that the Mail's mannerly editor Paul Dacre did once exert huge influence on government thinking. It's true that in his previous job as immigration minister, Liam's own rhetoric drew heavily on that newspaper's leader column, but no cabinet member has ever admitted this before. Even more lavish thanks must go to him for spotlighting a development that had somehow passed me by, and careful reflection confirms that it's already been a good while since the Government capitulated to Mail pressure. In fact, you have to go as far back as 26 January 2009, when in defiance of all reliable advice from medical experts (other than the newspaper that propounded a direct connection between the MMR jab and autism), it re-reclassified cannabis back up to Class B.

Still punching his weight

There has been no official word from Liam that this new resilience to the bullying of the tabs extends to Rupert Murdoch's titles, but logic insists it must. On Friday, meanwhile, John Prescott, no longer in government but still its shapeliest cheerleader, proposed that Sir Fred's pension be withheld, and that Goodwin should sue if he dares. "Why not just stop paying him?" asked a Sun leader that day. "Let the vulture sue if he dares," and by mid-morning the Prime Minister was making legal threats of his own. Ending the link between government policy and tabloid hysteria was the easy bit, it appears. Breaking the power of Jungian synchronicity may take a little longer.

All things must fade

Speaking of Mr Murdoch, the whisper that he may be losing it becomes louder all the time. His insistence that investing in newspapers is the way ahead looks even more eccentric, with his purchase of The Wall Street Journal wreaking havoc on the News Corporation balance sheet, and with so many barely less revered US titles (the San Francisco Chronicle being the latest of them) in hideous trouble. The edging out of his chief operating officer Peter Chernin, in the traditional manner with which Mr M rewards long-term devotion, looks a peculiar piece of timing. And the resulting speculation about the succession, heightened again by Mr Chernin's imminent departure, may unnerve shareholders. All things must fade, of course, even Mr Murdoch's domination of Anglo-American media. Even so, the general rule – to adapt Gary Lineker on playing the Germans at football – is that everyone spends ages wondering whether the old goat's lost his marbles, and at the end he somehow comes out on top. Still, we can dream.

Between you and me...

Going that extra mile to respect their request for privacy, Bel Mooney sends a private missive to the Camerons, or "Dear David and Samantha" as she addresses them. How it came to be printed across two Daily Mail pages when the words "a personal letter" appear so clearly above that greeting, I've no idea. Perhaps this sort of sloppiness is a warning about the dangers of a brave new world that has no sub-editors in it, as warmly envisioned by Roy Greenslade and others. There have been several beautifully judged, profoundly moving pieces about the death of the Camerons' son, not least in this newspaper, and whether Bel's is one of those isn't for me to say. No doubt she meant it kindly. But it couldn't fail to remind you of Andreas Whittam Smith's maxim that for a journalist to write an open letter (let alone at such a time, and with so presumptuously intimate an air) is an act of madness.

Out after curfew, Gaunty?

If anything, The Sun has downgraded the role of its subs even more than the Mail. In his latest tour de force, Jon Gaunt takes umbrage at the tagged Jack Tweed's request to spend all the time that remains to her with his wife, Jade Goody. There should, writes my favourite columnist, be no relaxation of his curfew but for her final moments. "I'm sorry Jack, but you did the crime. Now shut up, do the time and make the most of your weeks with Jade." Yes, Gaunty, but isn't that slightly the point of him asking to be allowed to stay with her after 7pm each evening? This is what happens when you cut back on proper subbing. The writer, through no fault of his own, can look a bit thick.

Give us a clue, Jim

Its fans will be reassured to learn that Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon will rotate as presenters of the post-Humph I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, lastly, but could the trio yet become a quartet? Jim Naughtie's handling of an interview with Mr Brydon and ISIHAC regular Barry Cryer on Today last week suggested it should. Jim's auto-gag about the latter's bad singing was a gem of conception and timing. For a moment, I thought we were in for a riff about the BBC canteen, but good stand-ups instinctively know just when to get off that stage. What the various editors have been thinking all these years in restricting Jim's lighter moments to reflections on birdsong and chamber music is a matter for their consciences, but the sooner they liberate him from the straitjacket of gravitas, the more mirth and merriment for us all.

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