How the Mail mugged Labour
Tessa Myer thinks that the Labour Party has left itself open to being abused by the Tory press
Daily doses of dirt characterise the media's election coverage. Fabricated stories masquerade as 'truths' and impartial news updates. The Daily Mail has been the most obvious publicity arm of Conservative Party Central Office.
The Mail group's contacts with the Tory Party put it in a prime position to 'out-smear' many of the competing tabloids, and often to act as originator of the latest election story.
Unashamedly biased, the Mail on Sunday ridicules John Prescott, shadow transport secretary, because he has impeccable working class credentials and 'worse still, he's not one iota ashamed of them' (2 February 1992). In the same issue, John Major is praised for his Citizen's Charter, under the headline, 'Fanfare for the common man'.
The Mail will dutifully publish Tory press releases as privileged 'leaked information'. When opinion polls show Labour slightly ahead, the Daily Mail chooses instead to highlight the results of secret surveys 'conducted on behalf of Tory Central Office' (12 January). For the Mail men, if it carries the Conservative Party Central Office stamp it must be the truth.
'Exclusives' like a recent education leak illustrate this cosy relationship. The story headlined '£3m plan to end reading scandal' (Daily Mail, 3 February) was set up by the Tories to ensure that an education plan by Professor Maria Clay would be credited to the government. The Mail's 'Comment' claimed that 'Labour's education shadow minister Jack Straw, who got wind of this plan, was apparently about to spoil a government announcement about it by putting forward the proposal as his own'. Labour announced its latest education policy the following day, containing the identical reading scheme developed by Clay. Having got its own 'spoiler' in first, the Mail congratulated itself on breaking 'the stories that matter'.
The constant resort to inventing smears demonstrates the poverty of Tory ideas. In the first six weeks of 1992, the Daily Mail devoted more front pages to attacking Labour than to anything positive about the Tories. The attempts it did make to celebrate government plans fell rather flat. 'Back to golden age of trains', on Major's cheapskate plans to privatise British Rail, is hardly a front page headline to excite commuting Mail readers (8 January).
Labour supporters often blame the media for all of the problems which their party has in making a dramatic impression in the opinion polls. Labour has been hounded by tabloids and 'qualities' from the Sun to the Sunday Times. Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of the Labour Party talks of a 'conspiracy' between the Daily Mail and the Tory Party claiming that 'if there are lies it's because the Tory newspapers repeated it' (Newsnight, 23 January).
In fact, the main reason why the media appears powerful enough to disable the Labour Party is the reaction which press attacks usually illicit from opposition spokesmen themselves.
It would seem obvious that many of the recent smear stories about the Labour Party in the press are artificial or wildly inflated. Even some Tory MPs admitted the exaggerated nature of the tax 'truths' published about Labour policy. Few people would be taken in by such tales simply because they are published in the Mail. What can lend smears some credibility, however, is Labour's defensive response to them.
In their desperate attempts to appear morally moderate and financially respectable, the leaders of Kinnock's new-look Labour Party seem to have adopted a permanently defensive attitude. If the Mail accuses them of anything at all, they will deny it in detail. Instead of rejecting the Mail's values and refusing to be judged by the standards of the Tory tabloids, Labour tends to enter into a debate on the Mail's terms. The damaging impression created by this defensive posture is that Labour is continually in retreat, backing off from its policies.
Typical of Labour's response has been its reaction to the Daily Mail's tax attack.
One front page after another has been devoted to an attack on Labour's tax policy. First it was 'Labour tax plan shambles' (16 January), then 'Kinnock snared by his own tax trap' (17 January), followed by 'Labour's part-time tax shock' (20 January) and then the big one, 'Labour split on tax plans' (23 January)--backed by a double page spread on 'Labour's big pension con trick'.
The assault threw Labour into disarray and sent it back-pedalling fast from its own modest proposals. Labour leaders assured the media that their proposal to lift the 9 per cent ceiling on National Insurance contributions would be phased in gradually, that nobody earning less than £21 000 a year would pay more NI under Labour, that they would not raise income tax for most people, etc.
On the day of the Mail's made-up story about a Labour split, Roy Hattersley withdrew from any commitment at all by saying 'the proposals are for the chancellor when he becomes chancellor in 12 weeks time' (Newsnight, 23 January). The Daily Mail smugly headlined its front page 'Labour on run over tax' (25 January), and announced itself 'delighted that the Labour Party is to spell out exactly what its tax plans are'. It seemed as if Labour had withdrawn parts of its policy which the Daily Mail found offensive.
The intensity of the current dirty war against Labour in the press is probably unprecedented. It shows that the only way the Tories can win this election is by discrediting the opposition rather than selling themselves positively. But Labour leaders have laid themselves open to being mugged by the media. If you allow the Tory central office smear machine and the Daily Mail to dictate the electoral agenda, you are asking for everything you get.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992