20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 50

Despite the government's attempts to muzzle them, the media must not be cowed


The press has got very steamed up over Jo Moore, the spin doctor who suggested shortly after the attacks on 11 September that it was a good time to 'bury' the government's bad news. Certainly her email was in very poor taste, but I am not sure she deserves all the brickbats that have been flung at her. It is rather like inveighing against foxes for killing chickens, or dogs for chasing cats: that is how they are. The Jo Moores of this world are employed to deceive and manipulate the press, and governments are increasingly in this line of business. It is simply our job not to be deceived and manipulated. We really should not be shocked when someone is caught out doing what we know almost everyone in government is trying to do most of the time.

There is more than one way of trying to pull the wool, and on Monday Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's communications chief, as I must now learn to call him, summoned senior broadcasters. On one matter Mr Campbell seems to have had a point: he asked the television johnflies not to publicise Tony Blair's foreign peregrinations in advance for fear of terrorist retaliation, and they complied. But in everything else Mr Campbell was pushing his luck, and I'm glad to say he got nowhere. He wanted broadcasters to censor video statements by Osama bin Laden which, it is claimed, may contain coded instructions to his henchmen planning their next atrocity. This is silly. Mr Blair and President Bush do not yet control the airwaves of the world, and vigilant terrorists will watch bin Laden one way or another. And it is surely important that the majority of us who are not terrorists seize every opportunity to see and hear what a murderous, lunatic old fraud Osama bin Laden is.

Mr Campbell and the government also have a general gripe. They believe that the voracious demands of 24-hour news programmes are in some way setting the agenda. According to this theory, the media demand new pictures all the time, and if they do not get them they start criticising the allies for dragging their feet. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, made a similar point on Monday's Today programme, when he ticked off the media for expecting 'instant decisions' and 'complete results'. This is not fair. Speaking personally, I could watch Osama bin Laden and his accomplices being captured 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If there is criticism in the media — criticism which Mr Straw evidently resents — it is because some of us feel we are watching the wrong pictures. We fear that the pounding of Afghanistan may be leading nowhere or that, if it is leading somewhere, it may not be where we want to go.

This government's aversion to criticism is well known. In this conflict — it is hardly a war — it is showing the same hypersensitivity as it did during the bombing of Kosovo. Then it joined in the rubbishing of the BBC's John Simpson, who seemed to have committed no worse a sin than to suggest that Serbs in Belgrade were ordinary people who were sometimes being killed by Nato's bombs. This time around we may have seen only the beginning of the government's attempts to muzzle the media. It will play the national-interest card ruthlessly. The only response is to say that this is not 1940. This is not all-out war.

There is a long tradition of British newspapers criticising foreign entanglements. William Howard Russell of the Times started it all, and his articles from the Crimea contributed to the fall of Lord Aberdeen's ministry in 1855. When General Gordon met his grisly end in the Sudan, W.T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette emptied both barrels at Gladstone. The Manchester Guardian opposed British action in the Boer War, and drew attention to the so-called concentration camps. The Observer and, believe it or not, The Spectator spoke out against British intervention in Suez. Opposition need not be a sign of madness or treason. The Daily Telegraph is running an occasional 'Useful Idiots' column, which pillories journalists who oppose any aspect of American policy. No doubt some of them are idiots, but the feature has a Stalinist whiff to it. I do not like the implication that one must be daft or disloyal to have qualms about what is going on.

The government and the Daily Telegraph may not relish it, but much of loyal, patriotic, conservative Middle Britain does have qualms. Of course we want to get bin Laden and his crew, but in our ignorant, muddle-headed way we have our doubts and reservations about strategy. I can support my contention with a piece of evi dence. As during the Falklands War and the Gulf War, newspaper circulation has risen sharply. But the titles that did less well in September (for which month we now have figures) were generally those that evinced a uniformly uncritical attitude towards the conflict. The warmongering Sun actually lost one per cent of its sales, and the gung-ho Daily Express was up by only 1.35 per cent. The Daily Telegraph increased its circulation by 2.66 per cent and the Times, less monolithic and in a slightly broader church, rose by 5.86 per cent. The Daily Mail, which has been loyal but has asked anguished questions, was up by 6.63 per cent. The two papers that have had the widest debate, the Independent and the Guardian, climbed by 8.3 per cent and 13.44 per cent respectively. These movements may also be due to other factors, but they seem to suggest that some people want a discussion, even if the government does not.

In the old days, which were not so very long ago, great statesmen went along to the House of Commons in times of crisis to deliver their pronouncements. Now they prefer to perform in the newspapers. Last Sunday Michael Portillo wrote a leaderpage article in the Mail on Sunday which argued that America and Britain should be tough and resolute, though he didn't say exactly what this might mean in practice. It was noteworthy that Mr Portillo had not given the Commons the benefit of his views on the conflict when it was recalled on two separate days, and at the time of writing he still has not done so.

Some will say that this is further proof that Parliament no longer matters. Mr Portillo can reach many more people, perhaps even more politicians, via the pages of the Mail on Sunday, and trouser a cheque for £.1,500 into the bargain. But I think the explanation is more subtle. If he had spoken in the Commons, he would have nailed his colours to the mast, and perhaps been put on the spot by a couple of antagonistic Labour backbenchers. Writing a piece for a newspaper can be much less painless and much less risky for a leading politician. Churchill, of course, penned many lucrative newspaper articles during the 1930s, but he also wanted to have his say in the House of Commons.