Magazine article The Spectator

How Does Labour Survive Sleaze? with a Little Help from Its Media Friends

Magazine article The Spectator

How Does Labour Survive Sleaze? with a Little Help from Its Media Friends

Article excerpt

Acording to a YouGov poll in the Sunday Times, New Labour is now regarded as being sleazier than the Tories. Yet an ICM poll in the Guardian suggests that Labour's share of the vote has risen two points in the last month. How do we reconcile these findings? Labour's reputation for sleaze seems to be outweighed by other factors. Perhaps the relatively smooth running of the economy matters more to people than the stories about cash-for-access. Probably the Tories are still seen as unelectable, so better the devil you know. And possibly New Labour sleaze is still not judged to be as serious as was Tory sleaze under the Major administration.

If this last point is true, I would suggest that the media are helping to shape the public perception that New Labour is still not as wicked as the Tories were. Towards the end of the Major years the right-wing press was nearly as exercised as the left-wing press by Tory sleaze. The Daily Mail bashed the Conservatives almost as energetically as did the Guardian and the Mirror. This went on week-in, week-out, with only the Daily Telegraph hanging back. Despite a succession of New Labour scandals since 1997, the pattern of criticism has been very different. During 'Garbagegate' media coverage has been patchy and in some cases disgracefully sluggish. The BBC and those newspapers which see themselves as being in Blair's big tent have not wanted to plunge in the dagger.

The BBC's foot-dragging I touched upon last week. On 10 February the Sunday Telegraph's Joe Murphy ran his story, not a word of which has been shown to be untrue. Its essence was that Tony Blair had signed a crucial letter of recommendation to the Romanian Prime Minister on behalf of Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian steel tycoon who had recently given 125,000 to the Labour party and whose company cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as British. On that Sunday and throughout most of Monday these damaging revelations were barely examined by the BBC, with the exception of Radio Four's brilliantly forensic World At One. Downing Street's defence that Mr Mittal's company is British, since 100 people work for him in this country, was uncritically repeated ad nauseam. As the week developed, the BBC grew a little bolder, but always in the wake of further newspaper revelations. With its hundreds of journalists it was unable or unwilling to develop the story itself.

Some newspapers acquitted themselves little better. On that Monday morning only the Guardian and the Independent ran the story on their front pages. The Daily Telegraph, perhaps miffed that its Sunday sister had produced such a cracking scoop, was noticeably downbeat, and ran a limp second leader. The Daily Mail hit the board running, though without finding room for the story on its front page. The Sun was not as alive as one might have hoped to the gravity of the charges against Mr Blair, though, like the Daily Telegraph, it began to make up for lost time as the week progressed. The Financial Times did not exactly spring into action. The Independent was quicker on the uptake, and splashed with the story on Tuesday and Thursday. The Times took much longer to build up any head of steam, and its splash on Thursday attempted to turn the story into a mere issue of party funding. The Mirror practically ignored the story for four days, and the Daily Express was scarcely more interested. Only when both papers got embroiled in the Jo Moore/Stephen Byers story at the DTI, and were wrongly accused by the government of having invented a damning email, did they become exercised by Garbagegate as well. …

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