Magazine article The Spectator

Why Has Much of the Press Given Labour an Easy Ride? Fear and Jealousy Are Only Part of the Answer

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Has Much of the Press Given Labour an Easy Ride? Fear and Jealousy Are Only Part of the Answer

Article excerpt

Last week the Daily Mail serialised Tom Bower's new book, The Paymaster, which is about the Labour MP and former minister, Geoffrey Robinson. (Let me remind readers that I write a column for the Mail. I know Mr Bower slightly.) The allegations were sensational, and I shall repeat them for the benefit of readers who have lost the plot as threats of libel action cannonade around Fleet Street and Whitehall.

Mr Bower first alleges that, contrary to repeated assertions to Parliament, Mr Robinson received a cheque for L200,000 from a company called Hollis which was owned by the late crook, Robert Maxwell. He produces an invoice which adds credibility to this allegation. Second, he says that Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, 'deliberately buried' the DTI report which uncovered this payment. Third, Mr Bower claims that Geoffrey Robinson browbeat the then permanent secretary at the Treasury, Sir Terence Burns, into saying that he had given his personal approval for an offshore tax-free fund to be exempted from a blind trust set up by Mr Robinson. He also alleges that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, colluded with Mr Robinson in producing a misleading press statement on this matter.

So there we are. These are serious allegations. The first thing to say is that no one in government has yet attempted to deny that Mr Robinson received the cheque for L200,000. This is very significant. The second thing to say is that although Stephen Byers (or Alastair Campbell acting on his behalf) has threatened to sue the Daily Mail, no writ, nor even a threat of a writ, has yet been received by the paper.

What interests me is the reaction of the media to Mr Bower's allegations, and the events that followed their publication. With a few notable exceptions, newspapers have underplayed the story to an amazing extent. One possible explanation is the conduit. Because the allegations emanated from the Daily Mail, other newspapers, out of feelings of competitive jealousy, did not want to be seen running too energetically after them. This might explain the reaction of the Daily Express, the Mail's chief rival, which could barely find the time or space to consider what Mr Bower had to say.

Another possibility is that some newspapers were cowed by the government's announcement that Stephen Byers was going to sue the Mail. This certainly seems to apply to Radio Four's Today programme, which withdrew an invitation to David Heathcoat-- Amory, Mr Byers's opposite number, to appear on the programme, and also pulled the plug on Mr Bower himself. Yet BBC 2's Newsnight carried a robust report on the affair by the admirable Michael Crick, and received no writs for its pains. As the week wore on, newspapers and news programmes must have become aware that Mr Byers's threats were pretty bogus, and that at all events they could repeat and discuss Mr Bower's allegations with impunity.

So jealousy and fear provide only a partial explanation for the limp-wristed response of the press. This is all about politics, and in a pre-election period some newspapers wanted to afford as much protection as they could to New Labour. To a large degree they divided on party lines. The Daily Telegraph overcame any feelings of pique it might have had against the Mail, and gave prominent and generally sympathetic coverage to Mr Bower's allegations. The Guardian was in a quandary, unhappy that the Daily Mail was the provenance of the allegations and, deep in its heart, sympathetic to New Labour. …

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