Whose Side Are You on, Mr Desmond?

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most interesting meeting last week was not between Mr Tony Blair and Mr George Bush - this column is, you may be relieved to hear, for now a Bush-free zone - but between Mr Michael Howard and Mr Richard Desmond. Mr Howard, as the boxing posters of my youth used to put it, needs no introduction. Mr Desmond, however, could do with a few words by way of explanation.

He is the quite recently established owner of the Daily Express. He also owns some livelier publications intended, as they say, for an adult readership, which (English being the strange language it is) naturally means a non- adult readership. For some reason, the most famous of these is entitled Asian Babes.

In the immediate post-war period and for some time afterwards, the popular newspaper market was dominated by two titles, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. The Mirror supported Labour, never slavishly but always loyally: come the election, there was never any doubt about which way the paper was going to jump. It was widely though erroneously credited with winning the 1945 election and keeping Labour in office in 1950. For this reason it was treated as an ornament on the party mantelpiece, its journalists endlessly cosseted, flattered and indulged.

The Express, by contrast, was not so reliable a friend of the Tories. This was certainly so when its proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, was alive. He died in 1964, after which all his papers fell into a decline. Even so, there was never any question about where they stood when it came to an election.

Today the Mirror is more or less in the same position which it has always occupied in relation to Labour. If anything it is more sceptical than its predecessors would have been. In loyalty to the present government, it has been out-shouted by Mr Rupert Murdoch's Sun, which used to persecute Mr Neil Kinnock and bow down before Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

The Sun has not become a Labour paper but it has turned into a supporter of the Government or - what is not quite the same thing - of Mr Blair personally. Just over two weeks ago Mr Murdoch gave an interview to the BBC, one of his least favourite organisations, in which he indulged in a bit of teasing. He was, he said, distinctly impressed with Mr Howard. His papers might well switch to supporting him at the election. On the other hand, they might not. For Mr Blair had been very brave (this was Mr Murdoch's opinion) in international affairs.

Some papers unfriendly to Mr Murdoch commented that he clearly did not envisage the possibility that one or more of his editors might take a different view about the respective merits of Mr Howard and Mr Blair. And it is true that he did not appear to contemplate such a possibility. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that in 1990, under Mr Andrew Neil, The Sunday Times came out in favour of Mr Michael Heseltine as Tory leader. More recently, over both the Iraq war and the Hutton inquiry, most of the columnists of The Times have taken a different line from that of their paper.

Such mitigations of proprietorial power, if they ever come about, are no consolation to No 10. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when Mr Blair enjoyed the support not only of The Sun but of the Daily Mail as well. …