12 MAY 2001, Page 31

Why Labour is guaranteed a good press during the election campaign


New Labour goes into the election campaign with the enthusiastic or tacit support of every national daily newspaper except the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. If you add up the circulation of all the pro-Labour papers and of the two titles which won't be backing Tony Blair, you will find that the former have a huge advantage. In 1992 only the Mirror and the Guardian among the dailies rooted for Labour; now the Tories find themselves equally isolated.

Well, that is how it is. I'm not complaining too much. To a large extent the Tories have only themselves to blame. And yet you might hope that even the papers which favour the government might from time to time bring themselves to report and comment on New Labour's failings. There have been two instances of New Labour sleaze in the past week — one sensational, the other possibly equally so — and yet they have been under-reported and in some cases not reported at all. • The first story concerned Geoffrey Robinson, the former paymaster-general, host to Tony Blair, close friend of Gordon Brown and benefactor of Peter Mandelson. He is by any yardstick a central New Labour figure. Last Friday afternoon, after considering a report of the parliamentary standards commissioner for several days, the Labour-dominated standards and privileges committee censured Mr Robinson, The announcement was purposely left to the afternoon of a day when most newspapers have earlier deadlines, and before a bank holiday weekend when the media habitually go into limbo.

Elizabeth Filkin, the redoubtable parliamentary commissioner, had produced a scathing report which found 'compelling evidence' that Mr Robinson had received a 1200.000 payment from the late and disgraced Robert Maxwell. Mr Robinson has repeatedly denied to Parliament that he received any such payment. So powerful was Mrs Filkin's case that the committee on standards and privileges was obliged to endorse it. But incredibly — or perhaps not, given the Labour majority on the committee — Mr Robinson was given three months to prove that he had never received the cheque. Why three months rather than, say, three days since this controversy has already been rumbling on for months? Because that takes us safely to the other side of an election.

Here, surely, was an explosive story. In the first place, Mr Robinson appears to have misled Parliament. Not just any old Labour MP but a former minister and confidant of the Chancellor. In the second place, a Labourdominated committee was plainly attempting to protect its man from a media onslaught. If Mr Robinson had been a former Tory minister before the last election, the banana custard would have hit the ceiling. As it was, only the Daily Telegraph carried the story on its front page. (To be fair, the Guardian had done so two days earlier.) The Daily Mail (which had originally serialised Tom Bower's book that revealed the £200,000 cheque) and the Telegraph cleared the decks on their inside pages. The Guardian, Times and Independent gave it a fair, though not exactly enthusiastic. run. But the Labour-supporting Mirror and Daily Express had scant coverage, while the Sun, which has recently become Tony Blair's most fervent cheerleader, could drum up only 200 words on page six.

There were perhaps journalistic reasons, as well as political ones, for the underplaying of this story. The Jill Dando murder trial on Friday had been particularly dramatic. The European Court for Human Rights had issued its absurd judgment requiring the government to pay £10,000 to the families of eight IRA terrorists killed trying to destroy a police station. So space for news was in shorter supply than usual. But this is hardly an excuse, since some papers were able to cover the Dando trial and the court ruling while leaving themselves ample room for Mr Robinson. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that several newspapers — most obviously the Mirror, Sun and Daily Express — did not want to rock the New Labour boat so close to an election. Only the Mail, Telegraph and Independent thought this scandal worth a leader — the best test of the importance a newspaper attaches to a story.

Monday morning brought new revelations which were even more grievously ignored. The Tory MP Andrew Tyrie was leaked a letter which established that on 4 June 1998 Tony Blair met Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja at No. 10 to discuss India's nuclear bomb. This was significant because previously Mr Blair had only admitted to having purely social relations with the Hinduja brothers. There was no reference to the meeting in the Hammond report published on 9 March, though Sir Anthony Hammond had been promised complete information. It seems odd that Mr Blair should have received on official business two men who were facing corruption charges in India. It may have been no more than a slight misjudgment. But was there more to it than that? Was the purpose of the meeting to flatter the Hindujas when they were about to make a donation to the Millennium Dome? Downing Street's justifications — that Mr Blair did not actually speak to the two Hinduja brothers and that they were part of a large group (they seem to have been two of a three-man delegation) — do not ring true.

The Daily Mirror ran nothing about these revelations on Monday morning. Likewise the Sun, obsessed with its ridiculous Ronald Biggs jape. The Guardian and the Daily Express tacked on a few words about the Hindujas to other pieces. The Daily Telegraph could summon no interest, though it carried 700 words on Nigella Lawson's flapjacks. The Financial Times published a news-in-brief item. Surprisingly, the Daily Mail had no more than 200 words on page six. Only the Independent grasped the importance of the story, running a three-column front-page splash by its investigative reporter, the admirable Chris Blackhurst.

News desks on a Sunday are not always the fastest on the uptake, and that may partly explain why papers reacted as they did. But we all know there is more to it than that. Some government-supporting newspapers want to protect New Labour, come what may. In the two instances I have mentioned, the Guardian and Independent acquitted themselves better than the Sun, Mirror or Daily Express. The Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph are vigilant, though perhaps their reaction to the Hinduja developments betokens a certain weariness, a feeling that however many sleaze stories are unearthed New Labour goes on as though it is smelling of roses.

Given the overwhelming support the party enjoys in the press, we may be pretty certain that over the next few weeks any new disclosures which might be damaging will be played down by most newspapers. It is all very shaming. Yet I draw some comfort from the hope that it will not always be so. Sleaze is as endemic to New Labour as it was to the last government, perhaps more so; and one day even its friends in the press will have to admit it.