Magazine article The Spectator

The Silence of the Sheep

Magazine article The Spectator

The Silence of the Sheep

Article excerpt

SUPPOSE it had been a Tory peer and not Lord Falconer who was responsible for the debAcle on Millennium Eve. Suppose this Tory peer had shared a flat with the Tory prime minister two decades before. Suppose this Tory peer, double chins wobbling, had issued Lord Falconer's ineffable apology to the 'VIPs and ordinary people' (in that Order) left queuing for hours at Stratford station.

The editor of the Sun would have proclaimed, in Kelvin MacKenzie's immortal phrase, that it was 'time to wade through Charlie Falconer's dustbins'. Pictures of his comfortable home in Canonbury, north London - and much else besides - would have appeared in every paper. Falconer would have been destroyed without mercy or much effort.

Suppose it had been a Tory minister, not Peter Mandelson, who returned to the Cabinet just three months after being publicly and damningly rebuked by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner for his failure to declare a L373,000 loan from a colleague. It simply would not have been possible. Suppose that Chancellor Norman La-mont, not Gordon Brown, had bought a flat from the receivers for the Maxwell empire. And that his closest friend was a former director of the company involved. He would have been flayed alive.

And so forth. These are three recent examples of difficult stories that have gone very much better for New Labour than they were entitled to expect. But there are hundreds of other cases which demonstrate equally well the government's grip over Fleet Street. No prime minister in living memory, not even Margaret Thatcher at the peak of her popularity, has enjoyed as generous a press for so sustained a period of time as Tony Blair does today.

There are some good reasons for this. The Tories were hated. Newspapers which reported them in a hostile way could claim that they were reflecting the mood of the nation. By contrast this is a popular government. The brutal style of reporting which played such a part in the destruction of John Major would not be true to the mood of modern Britain.

But something else more insidious is going on. The unique tractability of today's Fleet Street is the result of more than a decade of conscious effort by two new Labour media chiefs, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's talented press secretary. Between them they have worked ceaselessly to place friends in powerful and senior positions in the political teams of each Fleet Street paper. This week, in a new triumph for No. 10, the Guardian will announce that Patrick Wintour, the political editor of the Observer, is to join its team of lobby correspondents.

The journalism of Patrick Wintour conjures up a term beloved of post-structuralist literary critics: 'transgression of boundaries'. It signifies a work which breaches existing conventions and carves out new parameters of its own. Post-structuralists would approve of Wintour. It is sometimes hard to tell whether he is primarily a journalist or an instrument of New Labour. This confusion lurks in the minds of colleagues, too. In the summer of 1998, when the Observer was researching the lobbying scandal that became known as the 'Dollygate' affair, steps were taken to keep the political editor ignorant of the investigation owing to the - completely unfounded - fear that he would inform his Downing Street friends what was going on.

Downing Street took intense interest in the Guardian's appointment. Until now Guardian political reporting has been a source of despair in No. 10. Normal relations have been soured by angry letters of complaint, threats to give stories to competitors, and, on one occasion, a warning that Tony Blair would order Labour party members not to read the paper. Now Downing Street has its man in the Guardian, and there is little doubt that Wintour will be provided with access and exclusives denied the more detached political editor Michael White. Better still, with the Wintour appointment, New Labour can now claim friends, narks, allies and fellow-travellers in senior positions on every national daily paper bar the Daily Mail. …

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