3 MAY 1997, Page 31


If there were more London fox-hunters, Mr Major would have had Max's support as well as his vote


After most elections enlightened people usually agree that 'the Tory press', in particu- lar its tabloid wing, has behaved badly. They complain about the anti-Labour bias of these newspapers. Academics disappear to write little treatises which show how the facts have been twisted and the truth subverted. At gatherings of newspapermen, liberal jour- nalists berate their brethren on Tory newspa- pers for allowing themselves to be manipu- lated by right-wing proprietors. The liberal press, by contrast, sees itself as being far above partisan politics.

It hasn't been like that this time. The anti- Tory press has had a field day, while the Tory press, with the exception of the Daily Tele- graph and occasionally the Daily Mail, has been half-hearted and often inane. But I don't at all complain about the antics of the Guardian, the Daily Mirror and their new soul sister, the Sun. They have run a brilliant campaign against the Tories. I will only com- plain if their editors and senior journalists pretend that they played throughout with a straight bat and have merely sought to set down the truth and record the facts.

The Guardian has done most for the Labour cause, though it is not very friendly to the Blairites and will probably quite soon turn on the Labour leader. But the paper hates the Tories, and so there has been a coming together of interests. It set the agenda for the early part of the campaign with its further 'disclosures' about 'sleaze'. In fact no new names of Tory miscreants were paraded. The paper merely produced more chapter and verse to condemn the familiar gallery of minor Tory rogues. But it was accomplished with great technical aplomb, and the timing was perfect. As a result, the broadcast media, which rarely come up with any political scandals, had something to run with for days.

Having fulfilled this single service, the Guardian has not exactly been sleepy. As recently as Monday, it landed another blow on the Tories with the 'splash' headline, `Children in poverty: Britain tops the Euro- pean league'. Meanwhile the contribution of the recently converted Sun should not be forgotten. The paper made the Tories appear sleazier than ever by setting up Piers Merchant, a Tory MP of whom few of us had heard, as a seducer of a young tart. Those sages who pointed out that the paper had previously trapped other Conservative MPs missed the point: to do so at this par- ticular time was a calculated anti-Tory act. The Sun wobbled in its new convictions early in the campaign but, strengthened by an anti-European article by Tony Blair, it has begun more and more to resemble the Daily Mirror in its anti-Tory fulminations.

The Mirror has behaved as you might expect, running a viciously anti-Tory cam- paign. It has published a series of con- tentious and sometimes inspired front pages culminating last week in the sugges- tion that Michael Heseltine made an ille- gal tax claim. Perhaps its most memorable front page carried a heart-rending account by a nurse in whose arms a young man of 22 had died of cancer — supposedly the victim of a cruelly underfunded NHS. The nurse in question later declared for the Lib- eral Democrats, but no matter. This was a piece of old-fashioned, heart-tugging jour- nalism in the Labour cause.

As I say, I have no complaints about these assaults, fair or unfair, by the anti- Tory press. It is the way our newspapers are. My only complaint would be against those high-minded liberal journalists who may deny that they have practised the black arts previously supposed to be the exclusive property of right-wing newspapers. And how those right-wing newspapers have for- gotten their old skills! Only the Daily Tele- graph has known what it wanted from beginning to end, burying its former hostili- ty to John Major and resisting all tempta- tions to be taken in by Mr Blair.

The Daily Mail has run some leaders and front pages hostile to Labour, but somehow the paper has not had the will to carry it through. Its contempt for Mr Major runs too deep. On Tuesday of this week, two days before election day, the paper splashed with 'Kidnap Girl's 10-Hour Kid- nap Drive.' Perhaps it felt its readers had had enough of politics, but even so the Mail in the past would not have chosen to run a middling sort of story rather than try to land a last-minute punch on Labour. The Daily Express has been scarcely more help- ful to the Tory cause, while last Sunday the Express on Sunday did Labour a great favour by publishing a piece by Edwina Currie predicting a Tory wipe-out.

The two normally Tory-inclined papers which have behaved most bizarrely are the Times and the London Evening Standard. The latter paper has come out in favour of Labour. Its editor, Max Hastings, said on the Today programme that he has no confi- dence in Conservatives' plans to privatise the Underground and that he supports Labour's proposal for a mayor of London. For these reasons the Standard supported Labour. However, he himself intended to vote Tory on Thursday because of Labour's commitment to ban fox-hunting. So Stan- dard voters, whose narrow horizons ensure their only preoccupation must be the Tube and the governance of London, are yoked to the Labour cause, while Mr Hastings, countryman and small landowner, supports the Tories. If only Mr Blair had proposed to raise the top rate of income tax above 40 per cent, Mr Hastings (annual salary approximately £300,000) might have brought himself to reconcile his country and his urban selves.

No greater clarity of thinking can be dis- cerned in the behaviour of the Times, which has supported neither Labour nor the Tory party. Admittedly, the paper's editor, Peter Stothard, had an uncomfortable dilemma. On the face of it, the Times should back the Tories, having rooted for Margaret Thatch- er throughout the 1980s. Though it has sometimes cursed John Major, it has taken a Eurosceptic line that would seem to sit more unhappily with New Labour than with the Tories, divided as they may be over Europe. If form were any guide, the Times would endorse the Tories.

But Mr Stothard's hands have not been wholly free. For one thing, his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, has caused the Times's sister paper, the Sun, to come out for Labour. On Sunday the News of the World followed suit, even though, I am told, its edi- tor, Phil Hall, wanted to support the Tories. The Sunday Times, however, came out for the Conservatives, albeit somewhat grudg- ingly. This development seems not to have given Mr Stothard the courage to ignore his proprietor's preferences. The Times has ducked all other issues by advising readers to vote for the most Eurosceptic candidate. That means voters in Islington North should back the far-left Jeremy Corbyn.