Magazine article The Spectator

New Labour's Contemptible Cowardice in the Face of a Tabloid Lynch Mob

Magazine article The Spectator

New Labour's Contemptible Cowardice in the Face of a Tabloid Lynch Mob

Article excerpt

Two weeks ago I wondered whether we were not being a bit hard on Rebekah Wade, editor of the News of the World. Her campaign of `naming and shaming' convicted paedophiles was in some respects misguided, and was also obviously driven, at least in part, by Ms Wades desire to make a name for herself as a new editor. But she was undoubtedly reflecting concerns that the government and the media had largely ignored.

All this remains true, yet such sympathy I felt for Ms Wade has dwindled. For one thing, her personal behaviour has been less than glorious. She has unleashed a controversial campaign which has led to rioting and intimidation in parts of Britain. At the very least you would expect that she would appear on television and radio to defend her actions. Instead she has deputed the managing editor of the News of the World, its executive editor, its deputy editor, its public relations manager and even one poor columnist to defend her corner. I almost expected to see our own Sion Simon, who also writes a column for the NoW, being wheeled out, but he wisely stayed away. Why can't Ms Wade defend herself? Why must all these other unfortunate people be required to justify a campaign which they did not think of and for which they do not have ultimate responsibility? I can only assume that Ms Wade is frightened of being torn apart by a John Humphrys or a Jeremy Paxman. If true, this seems rather cowardly. Ms Wade is a public figure and she has done something which has had public consequences. Yet she cowers in her tent, oblivious to the battle raging outside which she has started.

That's one thing. The next is even more important. It has to do with the role of newspapers in our society. We all accept, I think, that it is a legitimate function of newspapers to run campaigns to change government policy. It is a fact of life that a newspaper with a large readership is more likely to be listened to than a newspaper with a small one. Rebekah Wade was perfectly justified - indeed, I applaud her for it - in trying to persuade the government to review laws relating to paedophiles. It is her tactics that have been objectionable. Running pictures of paedophiles has led to riots and public disorder, most notably in Portsmouth. Innocent men have been persecuted, and several paedophiles have `gone underground'. One has killed himself, allegedly because of the hysteria whipped up by the NoW.

Of course, Ms Wade did not wish for such consequences, and she may even have not foreseen them. When it became clear that terrible things were happening, the paper decided rightly to stop running photographs of paedophiles. But last Sunday Hayley Barlow, its public relations manager, said that the NoW might revive its campaign if the government did not provide public access to paedophile offenders' names and addresses. This may well be a bluff. I cannot easily see Ms Wade wishing to go through all that again, or being allowed to. None the less, it is an outrageous threat for any newspaper to make. `Naming and shaming' has led to riots and general mayhem. The NoW is, in effect, saying to the government that, unless it is given what it wants, it will bring disorder to the streets again. This is the language of the hoodlum, and an affront to parliamentary democracy. It goes far beyond the scope of any previous press campaign. No paper was ever so presumptuous before.

This brings me to the conduct of the government over the past few weeks. Rebekah Wade may be something of a New Labour figure, loved and admired by Cherie Blair, but we may be sure that over the stripped-pine tables of Islington, far from the housing estates of Portsmouth, her campaign has engendered nothing but consternation and contempt. …

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