23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 36

How does Labour survive sleaze? With a little help from its media friends


Acording to a YouGov poll in the Sunday Times, New Labour is now regarded as being sleazier than the Tories. Yet an ICM poll in the Guardian suggests that Labour's share of the vote has risen two points in the last month. How do we reconcile these findings? Labour's reputation for sleaze seems to be outweighed by other factors. Perhaps the relatively smooth running of the economy matters more to people than the stories about cash-for-access. Probably the Tories are still seen as unelectable, so better the devil you know. And possibly New Labour sleaze is still not judged to be as serious as was Tory sleaze under the Major administration.

If this last point is true, I would suggest that the media are helping to shape the public perception that New Labour is still not as wicked as the Tories were. Towards the end of the Major years the right-wing press was nearly as exercised as the left-wing press by Tory sleaze. The Daily Mail bashed the Conservatives almost as energetically as did the Guardian and the Mirror. This went on week-in, week-out, with only the Daily Telegraph hanging back. Despite a succession of New Labour scandals since 1997, the pattern of criticism has been very different. During `Garbagegate' media coverage has been patchy and in some cases disgracefully sluggish. The BBC and those newspapers which see themselves as being in Blair's big tent have not wanted to plunge in the dagger.

The BBC's foot-dragging I touched upon last week. On 10 February the Sunday Telegraph's Joe Murphy ran his story, not a word of which has been shown to be untrue. Its essence was that Tony Blair had signed a crucial letter of recommendation to the Romanian Prime Minister on behalf of Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian steel tycoon who had recently given £125,000 to the Labour party and whose company cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as British. On that Sunday and throughout most of Monday these damaging revelations were barely examined by the BBC, with the exception of Radio Four's brilliantly forensic World At One. Downing Street's defence that Mr Mittal's company is British, since 100 people work for him in this country, was uncritically repeated ad nauseam. As the week developed, the BBC grew a little bolder, but always in the wake of further newspaper revelations. With its hundreds of journalists it was unable or unwilling to develop the story itself. Some newspapers acquitted themselves little better. On that Monday morning only the Guardian and the Independent ran the story on their front pages. The Daily Telegraph, perhaps miffed that its Sunday sister had produced such a cracking scoop, was noticeably downbeat, and ran a limp second leader. The Daily Mail hit the board running, though without finding room for the story on its front page. The Sun was not as alive as one might have hoped to the gravity of the charges against Mr Blair, though, like the Daily Telegraph, it began to make up for lost time as the week progressed. The Financial Times did not exactly spring into action. The Independent was quicker on the uptake, and splashed with the story on Tuesday and Thursday. The Times took much longer to build up any head of steam, and its splash on Thursday attempted to turn the story into a mere issue of party funding. The Mirror practically ignored the story for four days, and the Daily Express was scarcely more interested. Only when both papers got embroiled in the Jo Moore/Stephen Byers story at the DT1, and were wrongly accused by the government of having invented a damning email, did they become exercised by Garbagegate as well.

So it was certainly possible, if you take your news from the BBC or from certain papers, to form the impression that the charges against the government were not particularly grave. Actually they were, and despite important embellishments the really damaging allegation was there from day one. The press does not divide so much on Left-Right grounds as on proor anti-New Labour ones. With the Daily Telegraph (once it got going) and the Daily Mail, the Guardian was in the vanguard, though its columnist Hugo Young believed the scandal 'doesn't merit massive attention', and the paper's editorials were judicious rather than censorious. The Observer was no less acute, and its columnist Andrew Rawnsley rightly thought the scandal more serious than the Bernie Ecciestone affair. The newspapers which find it very difficult to think ill of Mr Blair are the Mirror and the Express (until their pride was pricked), the Times and the Financial Times. The Independent is torn between its admiration for New Labour and its free-thinking traditions. The Sun dislikes much about New Labour, but (Richard Littlejohn excepted) still wants to believe the best of Mr Blair,

and was therefore reluctant to deploy its entire arsenal against him.

Voters are, of course, not mere vessels into which the media decant their opinions. They are part of a discourse, and newspapers calculate what they may be thinking in ascribing importance to a story. This discourse is still not heightened. As new scandals come along, as they surely will, Mr Blair will not be in trouble until or unless the media deal with him as they once dealt with deviant Tories.

Afriend of mine called Michael GearinTosh has written a book called Living Proof. It tells the story of the first year of his eight-year struggle against a supposedly deadly cancer. Mr Gearin-Tosh has resisted conventional treatment such as chemotherapy, and relied instead on a programme which includes a diet largely of vegetables, coffee enemas and an ancient Chinese breathing exercise. His beautifully written and inspiring book has been praised by Professor Sir David Weatherali of Oxford University and Professor Robert A. Kyle of the famous Mayo Clinic in America.

Living Proof was recently serialised by the Sunday Times. Several other newspapers have taken an interest in Mr Gearin-Tosh, including the Times. On 5 February the newspaper carried a generally sympathetic interview by Giles Whittell, This was accompanied by a less sympathetic piece by Nigel Hawkes, which took issue with Mr GearinTosh's reservations about chemotherapy. The following day the newspaper carried a second editorial which observed that Mr Gearin-Toslis survival proved nothing, and cast doubt on the treatment he had followed.

Mr Gearin-Tosh felt the leader had ignored the biochemical evidence in favour of his treatment, as well as wrongly suggesting that modern medicine was too advanced to take seriously what he had done. He wrote to the Times, as did Dr Carmen Wheatley, whose lengthy postscript, peerreviewed by three haematologists and oncologists, forms the third part of Living Proof. Neither letter was published. I have remarked before on the occasional tendency of the Times to shut out letters which it regards as inconvenient. If you believe you have been misrepresented in a leader, surely you have the right to set the record straight. The Times appears to be censoring a debate which for some reason it does not like.