Magazine article The Spectator

There Are Echoes Everywhere of the Final Days of John Major's Government

Magazine article The Spectator

There Are Echoes Everywhere of the Final Days of John Major's Government

Article excerpt

I was unable to cope when I joined the parliamentary lobby as a reporter for the London Evening Standard more than ten years ago. I faced two problems, both of them disastrous. The first was that I did not know how to recognise a political story. A grand set-piece the sacking of a minister, or the fall of a government - was obvious enough to anyone. But the kind of event that fills the newspapers on a daily basis appeared to me arbitrary, governed by laws that I could not fathom. The second problem was even worse. Once a story had been drawn to my attention, I did not know how to write it.

It was a bad time. I acquired a haunted look, lost more than a stone in weight and daily expected to be dismissed by the editor of the Evening Standard, to me at least a remote and ferocious figure. Late one evening I humbly approached a senior member of the lobby for advice. 'You have to bear one thing in mind, lad,' the old-timer told me. 'The reader does not want to look at the story at all. He is heading straight to the theatre listings or the sports pages. Your job is to arrest his attention before he gets there.

'A political story,' he explained, 'is essentially composed of two elements. Something happens - a speech, a piece of economic news, a throwaway remark by a Cabinet minister, a resignation. But these events, by themselves, have no meaning. They have to be connected with a wider pattern.

'Thus an article that starts off "The rate of inflation rose by x per cent last night", while accurate so far as it goes, is unlikely to hold the reader's attention for long. A story that begins "The government was plunged into economic crisis last night as the rate of inflation leapt by a shock x per cent" has a greater chance of success.'

From that moment my fortunes started to improve. This was the early 1990s, and John Major's government was in the process of establishing its reputation for sleaze, incompetence and indiscipline. Soon a structure was in place which transformed minor and often innocent transgressions by government ministers into blazing front-page stories. Coveted space on the front page could be obtained by the simple expedient of beginning with the phrase 'John Major faced a fresh sleaze crisis last night as . . . ' . The same magic was capable of converting remarks by obscure Tory backbenchers into a nutritious page-one splash, usually kicking off with something like: The Tory party broke wide open over Europe last night as. . . '. These admittedly mechanical routines went on bearing fruit till the government of John Major was finally put out of its misery in the 1997 general election.

The by no means negligible achievement by the Downing Street director of communications, Alastair Campbell, has been to prevent the same syndrome emerging under New Labour. Tony Blair's government is every bit as 'sleazy' and incompetent as John Major's - in truth, very much more so. Campbell has used his art to ensure that the numerous Labour corruption stories have been treated as discrete events, not part of a vicious, self-fulfilling pattern. The methods used - manipulation of the news agenda, creation of a claque of friendly journalists, the use of access as a means of control, above all an unspoken deal with News International - are neither heart-warming nor attractive. But they have been undeniably effective. Bad stories about New Labour have found it hard to get off the ground because Fleet Street has been unable or unwilling to place them in a broader context.

That is why the events of the last few weeks are so dangerous for the New Labour project. …

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