Magazine article The Spectator

If You Want to See Labour Getting a Soft Ride, Look No Further Than the News Pages of the Times

Magazine article The Spectator

If You Want to See Labour Getting a Soft Ride, Look No Further Than the News Pages of the Times

Article excerpt

To hear some people talk you would think the whole of the press was lined up against the government, and gunning for Alastair Campbell. It is not like that at all. Newspapers are not monolithic, and even within individual titles there are contrary voices. In the daily press only the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph are implacably antigovernment. The Sun can give New Labour a hard time, particularly on Europe, but often sleeps on its sword. The Daily Mirror is supposed to be pro-government, though increasingly it forgets itself. The Daily Express forgets itself less often. The Guardian is capable of being beastly to New Labour. The Independent, at heart Blairite, has recently run several stories which will not have gone down well in Downing Street. The Financial Times remains favourably disposed towards the regime, though its mind is often on other things. Which brings me to the Times, the subject of this column.

On Wednesday of last week, when the story about Black Rod achieved lift-off, the Times deployed a classic spoiling tactic. While the rest of the press was preoccupied with the withdrawal of the government's complaint against three publications, including The Spectator, the Times wheeled out Charles Clarke, Labour's chairman. Mr Clarke was permitted to fume against `pious and hypocritical' newspapers and generally twisting journalists, and his turnings were written up as a splash. Buried in the story - written by Philip Webster, the paper's political editor and, as it happens, a mate of Mr Clarke, with whom he shares a passion for Norwich City football club - were references to the Black Rod saga. But the effect was brilliantly to turn the tables, so that New Labour, far from being represented as on the ropes, was allowed to berate a morally defective press.

It was not until two days later, Friday, that column seven of the front page of the Times conceded that New Labour was in some trouble. On Thursday the paper had carried a third editorial which warned that 'a question mark hangs over the probity and honesty of Downing Street'. On Friday, Simon Jenkins - how one admires him despite everything; despite even the Dome - gave the government both barrels. This illustrates my point perfectly. Times journalists do not sing from a solitary hymn sheet. The paper is not uniform. Columnists such as Mr Jenkins, William Rees-Mogg, Matthew Parris and Michael Gove are not inclined to trumpet the government's achievements. Others Alice Miles, Mary Ann Sieghart and, above all, Peter Riddell - are. Fair enough. The leading articles, though rarely antagonistic, from time to time chide the government. But it is in the news columns, and particularly in stories written by Philip Webster and his deputy, Tom Baldwin, that New Labour enjoys its softest ride - witness the Black Rod story last week.

Mr Webster is by all accounts a first-class reporter. Mr Baldwin is a wilder and more picaresque character, though also gifted. Their reasoning seems to be that if they lay off New Labour wherever possible, the paper will be rewarded with exclusives, which often take the form of interviews with leading ministers. The principle of quid pro quo is understood by both sides. When Labour scandals arise - and God knows there have been enough of them - the Times is often slow on the uptake, and only enters the fray when it becomes clear that the story will not go away. That has been the pattern with 'Mittalgate', more recently with the memo targeting Pam Warren, and, last week, with Black Rod. The paper is also often slow to editorialise on these issues, though it may get there in the end. …

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