The Guardian's playing the blues

Is it an unprecedented volte-face, or is 'The Guardian' just giving the Tories a fair press? Whatever, Labour is incensed. James Macintyre reports

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:15

The historic relationship between the Labour party and The Guardian is at an unprecedented low, following a furious row over positive articles about the Conservatives last week which have resulted in government ministers being briefed against the newspaper by senior party figures. A confidential internal Labour memo, distributed to ministers, MPs and senior activists ahead of next week's Labour conference, accuses The Guardian of being "taken in" by the Tories claim to be the "progressive" party, and describes a leading article in the paper as demonstrative of a "naive, apolitical view of the world".

The attack follows a week of favourable coverage for the Tories in The Guardian, which described the party as being "progressive on tax" and referred to the "new Conservative" party because of its liberal social policies. The culmination of the series of articles on the Opposition – which followed one in The Independent weeks previously – was an editorial which declared that Labour could not win a debate over the Tories "motives"; only their "methods". It added that a "squabble over sincerity will not work".

The leader, headlined "Progress in Blue", and personally signed off by the editor, Alan Rusbridger, claimed that an attempt by ministers including James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, to present the Tories as masking "right-wing instincts" is not "wholly true". It added: "The new Conservatives claim to be progressive at least deserves consideration. Over three days, this paper has tried to offer it."

Labour's rebuttal memo, headed "Briefing Note on The Guardian Leader – confidential" and seen by The Independent, reveals the party's anger at the coverage. The memo, strongly backed by Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman, says: "In its editorial yesterday The Guardian effectively asked its readers to consider voting Tory, asking 'Should people for whom the idea of a Tory government has always been a horror start to listen?' On the contrary, it is those progressives who are flirting with David Cameron who need to listen."

The memo goes on: "If Guardian readers follow yesterday's leader – though they surely have more sense – and we ended up with a Tory government there is no doubt at all that the result, after the rhetoric and gimmicks faded, would be a smaller, less active state, money having been redistributed to the richest, and cuts in public services. Luckily you don't have to take our word for it, the more the Tories are put under pressure on policy the more they revert to type.

"It will give us no pleasure if one day we have to say "told you so" to people whose lives, frankly, won't change that much under the Conservatives. It isn't them but the people living throughout the country who will pay the price. People who rely on a strong government to protect them and provide them with chances and opportunities they'd otherwise be without, support that will, progressively, be stripped away under the Tories.

"So, no, we don't face a difficult question, actually. But we do face some deeply cynical and opportunistic opponents. If we really listen – and allow ourselves to hear – the horror story is still there. It is a shame that some are being taken in by the friendly mask that currently hides it."

Labour sources have, for a number of months, expressed dismay at some political coverage in The Guardian, claiming that some influential figures at the paper are privately supportive of David Cameron. Guardian veterans, however point out that the figures in question are merely "intelligent, thoughtful journalists" who take an interest in the direction of British politics.

But an interview in last week's paper with the shadow Chancellor George Osborne, apparently used to position the party as "progressives", is singled out by Labour sources. "It missed a trick", says a party figure. "In saying the Tories would have to rethink their fiscal policy, Osborne was actually – as Tories then made clear to other papers – paving the way to abandon caution on tax cuts, and slowly announce a commitment to spending cuts. The Guardian has got this all wrong: they have fallen for the idea that just because the Tories are recruiting gay candidates and say nice things about women, they are 'progressive'. And yet they ignore the much bigger question of tax and spending cuts, including a regressive inheritance tax. We can only conclude that some on the paper are in favour of that stuff."

The leaked memo comes amid what some insiders say is a debate inside The Guardian about how to cover the Tories, which in some ways mirrors Labour's own agonising over whether to portray Cameron as a "salesman" who stands for nothing or a right-winger in disguise. It is true, say some Guardian journalists, that there have been "lively discussions" at the newspaper's editorial conferences – disquiet was expressed at Tuesday's meeting – but reporters dismiss talk of "civil war". Friends of Polly Toynbee say she is "livid" at the apparent "neutral" repositioning by The Guardian, but the columnist did not respond to this newspaper.

One angry Labour source says The Guardian rejected an article by Purnell for Thursday's paper, despite criticising him in the leader. Instead, the paper published a piece by the former minister Stephen Byers. "Why did they not take the piece from the Cabinet minister?" the source asks.

Labour figures are particularly keen to highlight the role played by the paper's respected and influential chief leader writer, Julian Glover, whom they privately accuse of being a covert supporter of Cameron. "This is nonsense" says an old hand at The Guardian.

A senior executive said it was wrong to blame Mr Glover because as editor Mr Rusbridger takes responsibility for the editorial line of the paper. Mr Glover – partner of journalist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris – has been responsible for a number of front-page stories about significant Tory poll leads, and friends of the journalist point out he cannot be criticised for reporting such findings. "If anything, we have been ahead of the curve on the Tories", a Guardian source said.

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