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Boris, the Tories and the tummy-tickling poodle press

Posted on 6 March 2009 | 9:03am

Imagine that Mayor Ken Livinsgtone had been in contact with, and made odd public comments about, a Labour MP at the centre of a police investigation?

Imagine that this had led to an inquiry which, whilst saying Mr Livingstone was not in breach of the rules of the Greater London Authority and the Metropolitan Police Authority, said his actions were ‘extraordinary and unwise,’ that they might ‘inhibit full and free discussion’ of high profile cases ‘between the chief officer of police and a police authority chairman’ in the future, that they ‘placed him at risk of being called as a witness by either the CPS or defence in any criminal prosecution [of the MP], to the potential detriment of his office as chairman of the MPA,’ and that his behaviour risked being ‘perceived as furthering private interests.’

Imagine the public humiliation that would then be heaped upon Mr Livingstone as he and his senior officials were told they had to take lessons in appropriate behaviour for the public office they hold.

Does anyone for one moment believe that this would have come and gone as quickly as it has with our largely supine, Tory-tummy-tickling 24 hour media? Of course not. And why? Because it was not Livingstone but Boris Johnson who was the subject of the inquiry and those comments amid the findings of solicitor Jonathan Goolden.

Had it been Livingstone, the story on Day 1 would have been wall to wall in the London evening papers, with each of those quotes turned into a bad headline for Ken, then an analysis of all the ‘cronies’ around him who would be blamed for getting him into the mess in the first place. It would have led the London TV and radio news, and been number 4 or 5 on the national news, with the words ‘unwise and extraordinary’ coming well ahead of ‘cleared of misconduct’. Day 2 would have focussed on the ‘unanswered questions.’ Livingstone would have been hauled before some committee or other, or chased down by the media as he left home, to explain and be asked why he had not apologised and when was he going to start his lessons in leadership?

By Day 3, the loose ends would be being picked at, one of the so-called cronies would say something a bit different to something Livingstone had said as he stepped off the tube yesterday, and then away it would go for another news cycle. Meanwhile the massed ranks of the commentariat would be out saying this was the last straw, bye-bye Ken, let’s vote for Boris.

And what happened with Boris? It would not surprise me if you were reading about this for the first time. It was not so much as damp squid as bone dry. A few headlines saying ‘Johnson cleared,’ most of the media ignoring it completely,  please turn to page 10 for another editorial saying Boris has not turned out to be as big a disaster as everyone warned.

It was the same tummy-tickling Tory bias (TV and radio every bit as much as print by the way) when Tory MP Damien Green was arrested. Does anyone for one second think that if a Labour MP had been arrested, Labour would so easily have been able to generate the synthetic outrage in most of the media about PC Plod

trampling around an MP’s office. (Compare and contrast the zeal with which the tummy-ticklers urged on ‘Yates of the Yard’ when pursuing false and politically motivated ‘cash for honours’ allegations. Subjecting the Prime Minister to police interview about something an SNP MP said – but of course, cry the tummy-ticklers. Asking a Tory MP to answer a few questions about what may be a breach of the Official Secrets Act – outrage! How could they do this to our democracy?

Just as the Tories under David Cameron get a totally easy ride from the media on policy, and the inconsistency of uncosted and unworkable policies, so on issues of standards, it looks like the tummy-ticklers will be playing the same game.

As I keep saying to people in the Labour Party, there is no point hanging around waiting for a fair and balanced press. There is not that much you can do if the media in Britain is not fit for purpose, and does not discharge its responsibility (or in the main even feel any such responsibility) to genuine debate about the political choices facing Britain. They have just decided that getting Gordon and saying nothing positive about Labour is the only coverage they are really interested in, and that the Tories are to be nothing more than the cheerleaders for that one-eyed approach.

The good news is that the public are on to it. It means that face to face campaigning, online communications and above all consistent and relentless exposure to the public of who the Tories are and what they stand for, is more important than ever.

  • AC

    if you didn’t see it yesterday, take a look at my latest campaign. Click on video and vlog

  • Jonathan

    Yes, Boris overstepped the mark.

    But the analogy with the “cash for honours” investigation does not hold up. Damien Green was accused of obtaining information and using it to embarrass the Government (also known as the proper business of Opposition). Lord Levy etc. were accused of soliciting cash donations in return for procuring honours (also known as a serious criminal offence).

    PS – I agree with what you say about direct communication. I would quibble somewhat with the assertion that the Press is “not fit for purpose” (which appears to be rooted in an assumption that the purpose of the Press is to communicate the Labour Party’s arguments). However, I do agree that direct communication is the future of political campaigning not least because I said as much in response to your blog yesterday.

  • David Stuart

    Whilst the right-wing press will always paint the Conservatives in a nice manner, in truth they are one of the few groups of people that are worse than the Conservatives…so from a relativistic perspective Boris is good!

    The only point I take issue with is “The good news is that the public are onto it”. I believe that, unfortunately there are still great swathes of the public (although obviously not the astute readers of your blog) who do believe what they read in the press. Even those who profess to be aware of the bias can’t help but succomb to the drip-drip-drip of right wing propaganda.

  • Mellie

    Good article, Alistair. The press are grooming the Tories for government, giving Cameron and Johnson an easy ride. The media after all is made up of big capitalist interests who want to make sure that it’s working people, not themselves, who pay for the financial crisis.

    I don’t see any end in sight for this sort of bias, and I’m not sure the public is onto it either. Gordon Brown needs to make a clear step to the left to win back the voters Labour’s lost and expose the Tories. Otherwise we’re facing the possibility of a Tory government that’s still stuck in the clapped-out neoliberalism that just got dashed by economic reality.

  • pamwest

    Yes, this is the first time I have heard this, and thanks for bringing it to the fore.

  • Charlie

    In this particular example the press is accurately reflecting the public view: Whilst Boris is widely perceived as a likeable gaffe-prone sort of chap to whom this sort of thing is bound to happen, Ken Livingstone is widely percieved as a conniving twisting mendacious dangerous obsessive who was thankfully defenestrated by a majority vote of Londoners at the last opportunity.

    It will be interesting to see how the press line up if Boris v Ken v Sugar becomes an issue.

    As for Gordon: Even if the Bard himself was resurrected and wrote peans of praise……He’s Toast!

  • Rob Atkins

    Imagine if a leading politician had lied to parliament and to the country that he had abolished boom and bust. Imagine if that same person deregulated the banks and encouraged them by whatever means to increase credit in the economy. Imagine if that politician were found to have mortgaged the country’s future for generations by reckless borrowing in an attempt to be seen to be doing something, while neglecting to take any responsibility for his failure in the first place.

    Imagine if Alastair Campbell wrote something meaningful on this sorry little escapade. No, you’re right : unthinkable.

  • Tom

    Hmm, someone who gets it. It’s Alastair Campbell. Amazing, considering your background, but there you go.

    Yes, the press isn’t fit for purpose, because of the imbalance between well-paid opionated star columnists who contribute nothing but their own narrow biases and the dwindling number of proper journalists doing the right thing.

    Even the latter often get tripped up by clever PR merchants with a line to push – witness today’s coverage of allegedly ‘increased journey times’ on the rail network, pushed out by a right wing Lib Dem (previously best known for writing for Policy Exchange suggesting the North be depopulated) and complete with obliging comment from Theresa Villiers.

    That the report is based on specious horseshit is immediately obvious to anyone with any relevant expertise in the area, but no one with sufficient expertise is going to be writing for a mainstream newspaper, so it gets churned straight out complete with bias. Worse, the Government also evidently lacks anyone with sufficient expertise to shoot this down in flames, so it sticks. That, I think is the crux – the Tories and press get away with paper-thin stories because the enfeebled Labour PR machine can’t punch back even when they’re right.

    The blogs and online forums, on the other hand, are full of people with a wide range of expertise and who aren’t dependent on pushing a particular line or meeting a particular deadline for their wages. That’s why the press isn’t fit for much more than reporting what celebrity fell out of which nightclub last night.

  • sam

    The press rolled over to have their tummy tickled for so long by Labour that this is slightly absurd. And Labour still have the Mirror, which has now gone into Comical Ali mode regarding Brown. The press has never been committed to ‘genuine debate about the political choices facing Britain’, it generally acts as an attack dog on the villain of the moment (anyone remember something about Major tucking his underpants into his trousers?). But now it happens to be anti-Labour. Suck it up.

  • Alina Palimaru

    To Jonathan:

    I would dispute your allegation that AC implied that the purpose of the press is to communicate the Labour message. As I understand it, he means that in the grand scheme of things, the British media are not balancing their stories. In other words, while they are going after Gordon for such and such policy, thereby implying that the Tories would do better, the media ought to explain why the Tories would do better, and substantiate the claim. Case in point, the state schools issue. As AC noted, they’re all framing the matter as “state schools are bad,” and therefore it’s time to depart from Labour policies, but to what? I read the Tories School Policy Paper and can tell you they are tabula rasa on the issue, they have no basic understanding of the economics of school systems, their proposals are contradictory etc! And the press ought to point that out as well.

    Alastair, good point about the critical role of new media. Part of the reason why they have been so effective is that they bypass all the mainstream media nonsense and get straight to the people! Look no further than Obama’s campaign, where new media effectively dissolved some of the most ridiculous, if blood curdling, allegations about him.

    Finally, a grammar point: shouldn’t we use “media are” instead of “media is”? “Media” has Latin roots, and is the plural of “medium.”

  • Pete

    Charlie: “It will be interesting to see how the press line up if Boris v Ken v Sugar becomes an issue.”

    Looking unlikely that this will happen. Turns out the Sugar for mayor thing was a touch, um, *hyberbolic*. Surprising, really, given the journo involved…

    Have a look here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/davehillblog/2009/mar/01/andrew-gilligan-alan-sugar

  • Jonathan

    Alina – Yes I did perhaps overstate my argument by suggesting that AC feels the job of the press is to communicate the Labour message.

    It probably is also right to say that some media coverage is not terribly “balanced”. But nor are the public terribly “balanced” in their perception of Gordon Brown and the Labour party. Both are extremely unpopular at the moment. That is not a political point; just a statement of fact. In those circumstances I don’t find it so surprising that AC feels that Labour’s message isn’t getting across.

    I tend to think that sometimes when politicians and others say “The Press are not giving me a fair hearing” what they really mean is “I am not communicating my message properly” or “I am communicating my message, but the public don’t agree with it”. I am afraid that I think politicians have only themselves to blame if their message isn’t getting across: they should either find a new way of communicating (your point about new media) or perhaps just accept that the public don’t agree.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Tom, I completely agree with you on poor Labour responses!! Just in the past weeks the Tories issued some position statements on crime and education with so many dubious claims, unsubstantiated proposals and uncorroborated numbers, that they’d put Goebbels to shame!

    I have yet to see a robust Labour attack on-line or otherwise! And it doesn’t require someone with a Doctor’s degree to take their policy positions apart and show how immature the Conservative party platform is. They must be challenged on their turf and Labour must (and can) have the last word on these things.

  • linda

    Agree with Tom. Labour need a decent communicator and strategist, it’s quite telling that most people can’t name who the person responsible for press at No: 10 is these days. I’ve no sympathy they need to sharpen up.

  • Phil McNally

    I completely agree with you Alastair. I think the way the media is behaving at the moment is disgraceful, and is blatently backing the Tories-and this isn’t just the Mail and the Telegraph, but even the BBC, the so-called Independent and even, at times, the Guardian. Funnily enough the only paper that seems to remember who the bad guys are and who the good guys are is your old paper, the Mirror. In the current situation, lies and half-truths become fact in the public’s mind, and Tory controlled organisations like the Taxpayers’ Alliance are used to spread Tory poison. However, I don’t think we can just rely on face-to-face campaigning-although crucial, it’s just not enough anymore. Although Obama did the grassroots stuff very well, he also had 4 times more TV advertising campaigns than McCain, and didn’t he have a campaign advert during the middle of the Superbowl or something? I forget the details.
    The point is, if we are going to win the next election (and we really can, the Tories are very weak, and have a job on their hands convincing people to vote for the) then we need to get a grip with the media. Every lie and argument put out there by the Tory press needs to be destroyed and our case put forward. We are on the right side, and the Tories are in the wrong-the problem is getting our message across. That’s what we need to do, and we perhaps need someone with experience at doing this to turn our fortunes around?? 🙂 But we should not become defeatist and despondent. But we can only win if we start engaging with the public more, and getting our arguments out as well as the Tory ones, and also by telling the truth about the opposition-some would call it fear-mongering (The 1992 election is a useful example), but it’s ok to spread fear about Cameron because there’s an awful lot to be fearful of.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Phil, I agree with you! And to add to your Obama comparisons, his campaign would respond to policy and other challenges via email within HOURS of the opponent’s attacks. That’s how you drive the message home… respond promptly, submit robust rebuttals every day, so that there is no room for the Tories’ half-baked chatter to gain currency!

    Thanks for your insightful post!
    Alina

  • Andy Griffiths

    The BBC TV & Radio are just as guilty as the right wing press of giving the The Conservative Party a free ride. It’s as if they have made their minds up that The Labour Party are going to loose the next election and they don’t want to risk upsetting them and avoid any risk to the future of the license fee under a Tory Government. Some of the presenters seem to have given up even pretending to be impartial and sound more like Conservative pundits. Perhaps the constant accusations of liberal bias at the BBC from the Daily Mail et al is having an effect.

  • Alan Quinn

    Ally,
    Our communication is crap, we never seem to go after the tories anymore. We never get the message across about our achievements, the public will beieve that the massive investment in schools and the NHS is “the norm” .