Sunday, 1 July 2012

Clunking Conspiracy

I enjoyed this article by Hugo Rifkind writing in The Times last week - in which he derides Gordon Brown's evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on phone hacking and press standards.

You've got to hand it to the former Labour leader - he is shameless about saying one thing then doing another - happy to portray himself as a man with a moral compass - yet the man most identified with old-fashioned, machine-like politics inside the Labour party. 

I have to say never heard Gordon Brown complaining about standards in the press - when Labour friendly newspapers were 'monstering' the opposition - which The Sun, The Mirror and Daily Record have all been prepared to do in their day.

No it's only when the papers turn their fire on Labour that Gordon Brown becomes outraged  and indignant - because the fact is that if The Sun had never switched its allegiance to the Tories, the story would be totally different.

I am reminded of the story told by Jonathan Powell - Tony Blair's chief of staff in the last Labour government - in which he compared Gordon Brown's ambition to land the top job as Prime Minister - to a dog chasing an airplane.

'What would the dog do if it caught the airplane?' - was Powell's rhetorical question. 

In my view history has shown that Powell was right.   

It’s the clunking fist school of conspiracy

by Hugo Rifkind

Tony Blair described the media as beasts out of control. He was right. But they have no sinister underlying motive.

Yesterday I had a distressing experience. It consisted of listening to Gordon Brown address the Leveson Inquiry and having to add yet another item to the mental folder I keep in my skull entitled “Things Tony Blair Was Right About”.

I’m not proud of it. I wasn’t concentrating in my twenties, but I don’t remember ever voting for Tony Blair. The one political event on which I managed to work up a passion, indeed, was The Big Thing Tony Blair Was Wrong About. And yet, too often, now I am concentrating, these things — the ones he was right about — crop up. Academies. Civil partnerships. The NHS. I shan’t go on because it upsets me, but yesterday it happened again. Because Tony Blair was also right, I now realise, about the failings of the British press. And Gordon Brown isn’t.

He’s wrong, though, in a very widespread way. A few years ago, at dinner, I sat next to a very eminent media expert. He spent most of the starter course telling me that Rupert Murdoch habitually instructed columnists in his newspapers what they ought to write.

“I’m not sure that’s right,” I said, after a time. Although politely, because I wanted to see what would happen.

“It is right,” he said and went on to explain how much of a mug I was.

“But I’m a columnist for one of his newspapers,” I said, eventually.

“Only the important ones,” he clarified, without skipping a beat, “and the leader writers.”

“But I’m a leader writer,” I said.

And after that, he turned around and spoke to the woman on the other side.

This is the Gordon Brown view of the media. The big problem, he kept saying yesterday to Lord Justice Leveson and that eloquent QC whose beard makes his head look upside down, was that newspapers “conflate opinion and fact”. There was an irony implicit in this, of course, in that this very statement was about as brazen a conflation of opinion and fact as you could hope to formulate. But there was a further irony in the way that Robert Jay, QC, (for it was he) went on to ask Mr Brown if he agreed with Tony Blair’s famous assessment of the media as “feral beasts” in a speech in 2007.

“Yes,” said Mr Brown. “His remarks were exactly what I’m saying.”

No, Gordon. They exactly weren’t. That’s you doing it again, conflating the facts of what Mr Blair said with your opinion about what he ought to have said. What we have here, in fact, is two unflattering but entirely opposing views about the press, Mr Blair’s and Mr Brown’s. The Leveson Inquiry was born out of the former, and only the former, but everybody seems to have forgotten that.

Tony Blair thought back then — and doubtless still thinks — that the British press was awful. “Of course the accuracy of a story counts,” he said. “But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be, but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.”

It’s a fairly devastating critique, this, painting the press as irresponsible and amoral; a nihilistic force of mob-handed destruction. In the wake of phone hacking and everything else, this does not seem inaccurate. But this is not what Gordon Brown thinks at all. He sees a press that is not amoral, but immoral. Or, to put it another way, Tony Blair would say that the press tore apart Gordon Brown because he was rubbish, because it was fun, because it was just so damn easy, because a mindless sort of group-think took hold and ordinary humanity flew out the window. Whereas Gordon Brown thinks it happened because two or three powerful men, for ideological or commercial reasons, entered into a conspiracy to get rid of him.

Not so long ago, the Brown view seemed mad. This is because it is mad. In Gordon’s world, it was hostility to him that led papers to fill up with stories about overstretched troops dying in Afghanistan. Never mind that they were, actually, dying at a horrific rate, and they were overstretched. In Gordon’s world, papers decided they fancied a Tory government and then went hunting for stories about him throwing mobile phones at people. As though there were stories about simply everybody throwing phones at people, if you looked hard enough, but the Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays had just decreed that the ones about David Cameron ought to be hushed up.

As regards to various specific areas of criminality, time will tell. But take it from me, newspapers are lousy places to cook up any sort of conspiracy. Hacks have limitless diligence when it comes to actual words and actual pages, but can be somewhat — let’s be polite here — laissez faire in other areas. Every time I hear Tom Watson declare that News International was deftly running a shadow state, I suppress a guffaw. Put it this way: you wouldn’t want to take the trains.

Plus, who needs a conspiracy anyway? Broadcasters are legally obliged to be impartial; newspapers aren’t. Maybe I can’t see the wood for the trees, but I have little patience for people who claim to be surprised by this. Nobody ever thought, “But shockingly, The Guardian hasn’t been entirely fair to coal power and UKIP!” did they? In 1992, The Sun greeted the election with the famous headline: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”

Sure, news pages should be different, and in the quality press they usually are. But even in the tabloids, well, it’s hardly covert, is it?

“Attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment,” said Tony Blair in 2007. “It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.”

Quite. The Leveson Inquiry was born out of a sudden public awareness that print media had terrible problems. I’m not going to play those problems down. But they were Tony Blair problems, not Gordon Brown problems; problems about process, not motive. All the way through, I’ve had a sense of lawyers looking for problems with motive and simply not finding them. And thus, what started seven months ago (seven months!) as a righteous autopsy into grotesque wrongs done to ordinary folk has become a whirlwind of innuendo about whether the sidekicks of media bosses and Cabinet ministers are sending each other the right sort of text message.

This is why it’s getting boring. It’s gone weird. It’s gone Gordon.