A 'dog bites dog' story
Tessa Myer watches the Tory press attacking the Tory government
'Dear Mr Major, do you have a plan to get us out of this bloody mess?' - Sun
editorial....'When are you going to resign, you hopeless little git?'--Sun
columnist Richard Littlejohn on Major....'The chancellor is wrong. The government
is wrong.'--Daily Express editorial....'This government is losing
its marbles.' - Bernard Ingham, Daily Express....'Mr Major...looks
weak. He is weak.'--The Times editorial....The people are 'lions
led by donkeys'--Sunday Telegraph....
A measure of politeness and servility is the usual tone adopted by the Tory
press in its coverage of the Tory government. But no more. During the rows
over everything from the miners to Maastricht, relations degenerated into
a slanging match. Normally, when the Tory Party blames the media for its
troubles, it's the BBC that gets the flak. This time Tory MPs are turning
on their fair-weather friends in the newspapers.
The Tory press has been accused of worsening, if not causing the splits
within the government. Fighting for his political life, David Mellor cried
out 'who decides who should be a member of the British cabinet - the prime
minister or the editor of the Daily Mail?' (Daily Mail, 25
September). He blamed the crisis on 'a barrage of tabloid stories'.
The fact that editors from the Tory tabloids to the Times are lashing
out against the government's lack of leadership shows the scale of crisis
within the British establishment. Gentlemanly rules between Tory Party HQ
and editors' offices have been rewritten as a string of four letter words.
The Tory press has become the Tory Party's worst PR agent - and they know
where it hurts.
However, the response by the Tory press to the government's political incompetence
has been as confused and troubled as the Tory Party itself.
The Sun has revealed its utmost contempt for John Major's gutless
leadership by presenting him as a root vegetable on the front page, under
the heading 'U Turn-ip'. This is the newspaper that originally championed
the Tory Party agenda in the eighties and reserved its turnip jokes for
England football manager Graham Taylor when England lost to the Swedes.
The Sun now champions the small man against insensitive government
policies. 'Newspapers are the voice of the people.' (Sun, 24 October)
'We fight for your rights', proclaims the newspaper that has previously
agreed with the government that unemployment is a price worth paying for
Britain. These days, the Sun often sounds as if it is setting itself
up as an alternative to the Tory Party. Perhaps Gary Bushell will run for
the leadership next time.
The Tory papers have been flailing about as wildly as Tory MPs for something
meaningful to say. While criticising government policies, the Daily Mail
is involved in U-turns of its own. It regretted that 'Lamont will have to
go' (2 October), then two weeks later congratulated the chancellor, who
had followed the Mail's advice to cut interest rates. The Mail
can no longer even whip up enthusiasm for the Citizen's Charter, which it
hailed as a visionary manifesto during the election campaign. Now it asks,
'What is the use of sacks of citizen's charters to the millions who want
work and who don't know how they can pay the mortgage?'.
Some pundits have carried a more elitist but equally alarmist line. Their
criticisms of the government are designed not simply to blame the nearest
Tory politician or his personal inadequacies, but to emphasise the implications
of the present crisis for the stability and coherence of the Tory establishment
as a whole.
William F Deedes, former Daily Telegraph editor and Tory Party grandee,
has voiced concern at the lack of press support for the government. He has
called for a 'rough balance to be struck' between the papers and the cabinet:
'We of the media have every right to call upon ministers to make fresh assessments.
We also have, I think, one or two of our own to make.' (Daily Telegraph,
20 October) The Daily Mail has also warned that 'there's a world
of difference between teaching the government a lesson and kicking it when
it's down' (Daily Mail, 20 October).
Meanwhile, the Daily Express has sprung to the defence of the innocent - John
Major and Norman Lamont. It's the 'grey men' of the treasury who have 'presided
over the shambles of Britain's economic policy' (18 October), and Tory rebels
are simply a'ragtag band of political headbangers'.
Amid the chaos, the Express at first tried to carry on describing
the prime minister in robust terms as 'Sergeant Major' (8 September) who
was 'not for turning' (11 September). That was before the changes of policy
over the ERM and pit closures. When those U-turns came, Express chief
Lord Stevens of Ludgate sought to blame the mistakes on the prime minister's
'cronies and buddies', rather than Major himself (21 October), while his
paper ended up defending the indefensible. 'The government has painfully
but successfully blundered towards the right way of handling this most difficult
issue' (22 October). Sounds more like the Express has blundered towards
making what's rotten smell of roses.
The divisions within the establishment are reflected by infighting among
the Tory papers. In response to Mellor's vitriolic attack on its loyalty,
the Mail declared that all of the Tory newspapers had contributed
to the down-fall of a cabinet minister. The Daily Telegraph criticised
the Times for publishing a shallow piece of journalism on John Major's
loneliness and feeble character. Now Simon Heffer, Spectator columnist,
is under attack from former Spectator literary editor Ferdinand Mount
for calling the PM a 'berk'.
Many people believe that a monolithic Tory media is all-powerful in setting
the political mood. However the recent rows and confusion within the Tory
press reveal that the media reflects the wider political climate rather
than dictating it.
Back in the eighties, a bold, confident Tory government gave the lead to
papers like the Sun and the Mail. They could sing the praises
of the British economy and hammer the 'loony left'. Today, by contrast,
the crisis within the Tory press reflects the establishment's problems of
economic slump and political incoherence, as editorials contradict each
other and analysis gives way to rude remarks about politicians and other
The rewriting of the rules of engagement between the Tory press and the
Tory Party shows the weakness of old alliances in the face of the new crisis.
There are few loyalties to losers. The more elitist Tory papers can hardly
disguise their shock at the inadequacy of cabinet ministers. The one thing
which prevents them going even further in their attacks is the lack of answers
to the question worriedly posed by the Daily Mail on 4 November:
within the Tory Party, 'what is the alternative to backing John Major?'.
U Turn-ip: Major as seen by the Sun
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992