Alex Massie

Memo to Labour: the Press is Always Revolting

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The press really is beastly, isn't it? According to Jonathan Freedland,

The media's conviction that Labour, and Gordon Brown in particular, are doomed has grown so intense that it has turned into a kind of sneering disdain for the government, casting aside all conventions of respect for those holding elected office...

You don't have to yearn for a return to the days of dinner-jacketed deference on the BBC, or want an end to robust questioning, to feel uncomfortable at all this playground bullying of a man deemed weak. Like it or not, Brown does lead the democratically-elected government of this country. True, he does not have a personal mandate. But the office of prime minister deserves a modicum of basic respect.

To treat its occupant with such visible disdain is to show disrespect for the democratic process itself. Because if Brown lacks an electoral mandate, so too do Andrew Marr, Rupert Murdoch and the invigilators of the BBC and Sky.

The media likes to think of itself as a fearless scourge of the powerful. But this week we have seen the evidence that it is, in fact, a powerful elite – unelected, barely accountable and with all the arrogance of those it likes to criticise. There's something to this, for sure. But there's nothing new under, the, er Sun. Freedland's complaints would be more persuasive if Labour hadn't enjoyed - and egged on - the media's hostility to John Major's ministry a dozen years ago. Then as now the governing party felt itself under siege, traduced by a press pack that had lost any respect for the government and was impatiently awaiting an election that would clear the air and send the incumbents packing.

It is far from obvious that Labour is getting a worse press than Major did and those Tory MPs whose careers were ruined by trivial sex "scandals" might think that Labour, actually, is getting off pretty lightly.

But, yes, the press is both bored by Gordon Brown as a person and as a politician. It's no longer prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. That's what happens when a party exhausts itself in power.

There are, lord knows, 101 things wrong with the British press and some of those faults are serious. But it cannot be accused of failing to appreciate the public mood. That mood is indeed irritated, cynical and, yes, perhaps bullying too. When it was strong Labour prided itself upon its ability to manage and manipulate the press; now that it is weak it's no great surprise that the press is taking its revenge. Freedland's headlines writer complains "Enough of these media hyenas" but expecting a hyena to be a wildebeest is about as pointless an exercise as you could imagine. Hyenas are as hyenas are.

The press, of course, is always getting in the way. But, awkward, bloody-minded, shrill, arrogant, excitable, hypocritical and absurd as it may often be, on balance there's more to be said for the British way of doing these things than for, to take but one example, the French.

I'm only surprised that Freedland didn't think to include an attack on the internet in his piece. It's fast becoming traditional to decry the supposed lack of civility in online discourse too and to suggest that this also threatens the sanctity of democratic discourse. Aye, well, maybe.

More probable, it seems to me, is that we may be experiencing a reversion to the argy-bargy and furious disputation of the nineteenth century. Then, as now, there was rudeness aplenty in an age of pamphleteers. In that respect, perhaps it's the gentility of the mid to late 20th century that's the exception, not the rule.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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