Mandy has gone again but it's no thanks to the BBC
So Peter Mandelson has gone. The general view at Westminster and in Fleet Street was that the Northern Ireland Secretary would not have to resign, though his future prospects might have been damaged. Indeed, the most striking feature of the events of the last few days has been the sluggishness and complacency of the media.
The story of Mr Mandelson's involvement in Srichand Hinduja's passport application was broken by the Observer last Sunday. The newspaper reported that 'Mandelson approached the Home Office to find out whether an application from Srichand Hinduja, who had already been turned down for a British passport, would be welcomed'. It also reported Mr Mandelson's denial of any personal involvement in the application. The Observer, though ideologically sympathetic to New Labour, has carried several damaging scoops about the government, having first demonstrated its independence of spirit in its attacks on the Labour MP and then minister, Geoffrey Robinson. In retrospect, one could argue that the paper should have made its Mandelson scoop its splash, rather than a frontpage 'basement', since by any standards this was a sensational story.
And yet the broadcast media and much of the rest of the press were slow to react. Throughout Sunday, all the BBC radio or television bulletins I heard either underplayed the story or simply ignored it. On Monday morning, most newspapers were remarkably uninterested, given Mr Mandelson's past. Only the Times carried the story on the front, and then in a short 'write-off referring to a longer inside piece. The other newspapers tucked it away on the inside pages. Their problem was that none of them was able to take it any further than the Observer. Nevertheless, one could have reasonably expected some of them to have worked up more enthusiasm. Only the Sun and the Daily Mail thought the story worthy of an editorial.
By Tuesday morning it was for all practical purposes dead, and so it would have remained had not Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, voluntarily raised the matter at that morning's lobby briefing. He told journalists that Mr Mandelson had remembered calling Mr O'Brien after all. Why he spoke out remains something of a mystery. We know that he and Peter Mandelson and Mike O'Brien, the Home Office minister to whom the call was made, talked on Monday evening. Mr Mandelson was evidently persuaded that if he did not come clean, someone might leak to the press. It is certain that Mr Campbell had not taken kindly to having been misled by the Northern Ireland Secretary; misinformation which had caused him to give the press, on Monday morning, an entirely false version of events.
The Press Association put out Mr Campbell's revised version of events at 11.50 a.m. on Tuesday. Radio Four's characteristically quick-footed The World At One led with the government's admission that Peter Mandelson had intervened in Mr Hinduja's passport application, and all subsequent radio and television bulletins that I heard followed suit. The London Evening Standard, read by more MPs than any other newspaper, was by contrast snail-like in its response. This was certainly not the fault of its political editor, Charles Reiss, than whom there is no political journalist faster on the uptake. His report was relegated to page two in the 'Late Prices' edition and merited only a single column on the front page in the 'West End Final'. The paper's editor, Max .Hastings, must have been absent for the day. Or was he? He is certainly sympathetic to New Labour.
Elsewhere things were hotting up. Channel 4 News at 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening was marvellously incisive, and devoted the first ten minutes of its bulletin to the new revelations, including a statement by Anthony Barnett, one of the Observer journalists responsible for the original story, that Mr Mandelson had lied. ITN's revamped News At Ten carried two short clips of an interview with Mr Mandelson by John Sergeant, who offered the view that the Northern Ireland Secretary was 'in serious trouble'. Although the BBC had been quick to grasp the enormity of the story, it did not give Mr Mandelson a particularly hard time. On BBC l's Ten O'Clock News Mr Mandelson was questioned by Andrew Marr, whose skills as an interviewer do not match his great talents as a political analyst. Mr Marr, in common with all BBC political correspondents, was confident that the Northern Ireland Secretary would survive.
But what should have been the really important encounter was on 13BC2's Newsnight on Tuesday evening when Mr Man
delson was interviewed by Kirsty Wark. It was a weak performance. Ms Wark concentrated on Mr Mandelson's relationship with Srichand Hinduja and his role in the passport allegation. She underplayed the one highly damaging and undeniable fact — that Mr Mandelson had first said that he had no personal involvement in the matter, and had then been forced to admit that he had personally telephoned the Home Office minister. In short, he had lied. The Northern Ireland Secretary is amazingly serpentine, of course, but she should have plugged away on this point. Nonetheless he cut a pretty shifty figure.
On Wednesday morning Mr Mandelson avoided — he must have thought cunningly — giving an interview on Radio Four's influential Today programme. With a few exceptions the newspapers were as angry as you would have expected them to be. The Financial Times and the Daily Star alone did not think it worthy of a splash. Oddly, particularly given that its sister paper had broken the story, the Guardian did not judge that it merited a leader. On the other hand, the Labour-supporting Daily Express, whose editor Rosie Boycott has reason to have fallen out of love with the government, declared that Mr Mandelson should resign. The Sun and Daily Mail were enraged, while the Times and Daily Telegraph were robust, though the latter paper for some reason made the Mandelson scandal its second leader.
The upshot is that we have had the right result, but not necessarily thanks to the concerted efforts of the electronic media. It was the Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express which got it right. Whatever you thought of Laura Trevelyan's amusing report on Newsnight, she did not give the Northern Ireland Secretary the kind of going-over the BBC reserves for deviant Tories. As late as 8.50 on Wednesday morning Mr Man was confidently assuring the listeners of the Today programme that Mr Blair would keep the Northern Ireland Secretary in his job. Taking account of everything that had been broadcast by the BBC — whose effect on the political subconscious is so huge — this was probably the view of most observers in Westminster and Fleet Street. What the episode perhaps demonstrates is that, for all its sympathy for the government's predicament, the BBC cannot save a minister who has lied.