To lose one loyal media friend may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. Not long ago the government could depend on the instinctive support of the BBC. That has been forfeited as a result of the row over Andrew Gilligan, and the two sides are locked in battle. Now the Independent, which could once be counted on to see life from Tony Blair's point of view, is also at odds with the government. It is true that the paper, with hard sales of only 160,000 a day, is probably one hundredth as powerful as the BBC. Nonetheless, when No. 10 finds itself slogging it out with a second natural ally, one has to ask what is happening.
The Independent was wholly justified in running its story on Monday about a 'senior Whitehall source' who described Dr David Kelly, the weapons expert who committed suicide, as 'a Walter Mitty'. First Downing Street denied that the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Tom Kelly, had said any such thing to the Independent's Paul Waugh. Then it admitted that he had, but suggested that the conversation was a private one. This is complete bunkum. Official spokesmen do not have private chats with lobby journalists. Tom Kelly gave a background briefing which, in line with the conventions, Mr Waugh attributed to 'a senior Whitehall source'. Downing Street's pretence that Mr Kelly had not spoken to Mr Waugh was a lie, and its suggestion that the conversation was private a further lie.
I do not, however, deny that the Independent was happy to embarrass No. 10. For some months it has been skirmishing with the government. The cause, as with the BBC, was the war against Iraq. The paper opposed it from the beginning, and, like its Sunday sister, has been asking very pointed questions about the absence of weapons of mass destruction. Now, as a result of the row over the Tom Kelly briefing, the Independent finds itself in a fight with Downing Street, just as the BBC does in the case of Andrew Gilligan. Whether these ruptures will be permanent it is not possible to say with any certainty, but it seems most unlikely that the sunny relations of yore will ever be restored.
This leads me to a wider question. Is there really a sea change in the relations between the whole of the media and the government? Other once dependable allies have begun to point their guns at No. 10, though, unlike the BBC and the Independent, they are not yet in a state of war. The Daily Mirror, also unhappy about the invasion of Iraq, can no longer be relied upon. Even the Daily Express, as I pointed out last week, has taken to lobbing the odd rotten turnip in the direction of Mr Blair. Somewhat ironically, the Daily Telegraph finds itself stymied, instinctively wishing to attack the government, but unable to do so on issues arising from the war against Iraq because it so enthusiastically supported it. The Daily Mail, having been a lukewarm supporter of the war, and only once it started, feels free to lash the government day after day.
But before the Conservatives rejoice in the belief that the media tide is turning their way, they should consider two things. The first is the Murdoch press, which, with the exception of the Sunday Times, remains solidly pro-Blair. People say that Rebekah Wade, editor of the Sun, is a closet Tory, but I have seen very little evidence in her short tenure that this is so. Her paper practically ignored the row between the Independent and No. 10, and, in so far as it thought it worthy of notice, reminded its readers of the incalculable benefits to mankind of the removal of Saddam Hussein. The Times shunted the story into its inside pages and the tender mercies of Tom Baldwin, a noted friend of this government. The paper's inclination to defend No. 10, irrespective of the case against it, is pretty disgraceful.
So long as the Murdoch press remains wedded to Mr Blair, the government is not going to find itself on a lone promontory, assailed from every quarter, which was the ultimate fate of the Major administration. Rupert Murdoch has his own commercial imperatives, which I wrote about two weeks ago on these pages, which will probably keep him loyal to Mr Blair for some time to come. But there is a wider consideration which counts in favour of New Labour and against the Tories. It is the widespread assumption on the part of media owners, editors and political journalists that, for all the government's faults, the Tories remain unelectable. Of course, they may be wrong about this, but that is what they feel. A very good example is provided by the Blairite Financial Times's treatment of its Mori poll on Monday. This put the Tories three points ahead, and yet this startling fact was buried almost at the end of an article on an inside page. In case we were tempted to interpret this as good news, Mori's Bob Worcester told us in an accompanying commentary why we need not take the Tories' lead too seriously.
And yet the Conservatives were three points in front. Apart from the Daily Telegraph's YouGov, no pollster has given them such a lead in ten years. Surely it was worth a front-page piece. The reason the Financial Times did not give it such prominence was that it cannot conceive of the Tories as an alternative party of government. For the pink 'un, as for many other papers, even ones which are increasingly sick of this band of crooks and halfwits, New Labour has become the natural governing party, and the Tories under IDS lack conviction. Of course, the voters may take a different view, regardless of what the media think. But I see little prospect that the Tories will be taken seriously, or treated fairly, by the press until or unless they considerably smarten up their act.
And so to Kylie Minogue's bottom. You, gentle reader, may not be aware that the tabloid newspapers are obsessed with this portion of the singer's anatomy. We will never forget the time the Daily Telegraph highlighted the curvaceous bottom of a Kylie lookalike, but that seems to have been a brief madness. The tabloids have shown no such restraint.
On Monday Kylie was pictured in most of them. Or rather, her bottom was. It literally poked itself in the direction of the camera. Kylie had taken herself off to the south of France for the purpose of displaying her famous asset to maximum effect. The tabloids could not have enough of it. On Tuesday the Daily Mirror came back for more, promising us 'the secrets of Kylie's amazing bottom', while the Sun offered a 'free Kylie bum poster ...actual size'.
I don't want to ruin the party, but this monomania about a woman's bottom seems to be verging on the insane. These days many bottoms other than Kylie's are featured by the tabloids, accompanied by pathetic puns. ('How botful', etc., etc.) I am sure this is a fairly recent phenomenon, and I feel compelled to ask, in a spirit of cultural inquiry, whether editors are not viewing women's bottoms in a new light – whether, in fact, they are not encouraging, and possibly even being tempted by, unnatural thoughts.