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08 April 1997

Don't Turn Democracy Into A Media Circus

On 1 May we ought to have an opportunity to say what we think about Conservative policies. But we won't. Instead the media have decided that the election will be about 'sleaze'. There will be no opportunity to challenge the free market, or privatisation, or the war in Northern Ireland. But you will be able to have a say about the least important aspect of the whole election: the character of Neil Hamilton, Tory MP for Tatton.

The media has got up on its high horse about sleaze in politics. Led by the Guardian newspaper journalists have manufactured an artificial campaign about the fact that Hamilton accepted hospitality from Harrod's owner Mohammed Al Fayed, and was employed by lobbying firm Ian Greer Associates.

Like a maiden aunt, the Guardian throws up its hands in horror at Neil Hamilton's actions. But what Hamilton did is done by politicians every day - and it pales into insignificance when compared with the rank corruption of the British media.

Who do these journalists think they are to talk about sleaze? The Observer newspaper makes much of the fact that Hamilton has been 'bought' by Al Fayed. But the Observer has all too often prostituted its editorial independence to its proprietor, Tiny Rowland of Lonrho plc - dubbed 'the unnacceptable face of capitalism' - as part of Rowland's longstanding grudge against Al Fayed. Laughably, the Sun newspaper has joined the sleaze bandwagon. Why? Because media mogul Rupert Murdoch overruled his editorial team to back Tony Blair.

If Hamilton is considered untrustworthy because he worked for Ian Greer Associates, what does that say about Ian Greer's clients, such as Channel Four Television, Carlton Television, the Independent Television Association and the Independent Television Network Centre? Aren't these television companies, by the same token, guilty of trying to buy influence in parliament, or even of corrupting parliament? At the very least we should take their views about sleaze with a pinch of salt.

As for hospitality, the idea that journalists would not accept drinks, flights, hotel rooms or gifts beggars belief.

The Guardian Party shows its hand

Fed up with always being the bridesmaid and never the bride, the Guardian newspaper has decided to enter the political fray. They created the campaign against Hamilton and they led the calls for an 'anti-sleaze' candidate in Hamilton's Tatton constituency. Now BBC war correspondent and sometime Guardian writer Martin Bell has been persuaded to stand. The Guardian is cock-a-hoop now that their man is a candidate.

Fair enough if the Guardian wants to become a political party. Let them publish their manifesto and put it to the electorate. But let's do away with the pretence that the Guardian is just a newspaper reporting the stories. The Guardian has its own political agenda, and that should be open to challenge, too.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen. The anti-sleaze candidate in Tatton is 'not political'. At his press conference on Monday Bell said that he has not even voted in a general election since 1966. So why should anybody vote for him? What would you think of a war correspondent who had not been abroad since 1966?

Anti-politics means anti-democracy

Martin Bell makes a virtue of the fact that he is not political. But that means that the voters of Hatton are being disenfranchised. Because the Labour and Liberal Democrats have said they will pull out in favour of Bell, the only choice will be between the Tory candidate Hamilton and the 'man in the white suit'.

Some choice. What you think about party programmes, or different policies does not matter. The only thing that matters is the respective characters of Neil Hamilton and Martin Bell. And if that were the only question that counted, would Bell stand up to scrutiny? He has already cried 'unfair' that people have contrasted Hamilton's happy marriage to his own two divorces. But why should that not be an issue if political differences are off the agenda?

Paddy Ashdown thinks that Martin Bell's work as a war corespondent in Bosnia recommends him as a man of the highest principle. You can see why that would play well in the offices of the liberal media, who favoured a war policy in the former Yugoslavia. But what about those of us who don't think that the best solution to a conflict is to send in the marines? What choice do we have between the war-mongering journalist and the war-mongering Tory?

Martin Bell adopted a high moral tone over the war in the former Yugoslavia. The politicians did not understand the higher principles involved, he said. Now he is bringing the same high moral tone into the elections. Politicians do not understand the higher principles involved, he is saying.

But high moral principles do not make good politics. Campaigns to 'clean up politics' generally tend towards authoritarian solutions. Slogans like 'a new broom sweeps clean' are generally a prelude to judges and police chiefs taking over the town hall.

All too often the Guardian-reading classes can be heard complaining that they are fed up with the politicians fighting among themselves instead of dealing with the real problems. That knee-jerk reaction against political debate is the same one that led the middle classes in Europe to support strong men like Oswald Moseley and Benito Mussolini. They too promised to clean up political corruption and rise above party differences.

Martin Bell is no Mussolini, but you do not have to look that far back to see what happens to democracy when the politics of corruption gather momentum. In Italy today, extensive corruption trials and investigations mean that judges, not the people, decide who can be elected.

The media have a right and a duty to cover the issues in the election. They have no right to manufacture bogus stories and get up hysterical campaigns to promote their own political agendas.

James Heartfield

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