One of the most brilliant myths fostered by Alastair Campbell is the idea of our nihilistic media attacking the government morning, noon and night. It is utter bunkum. Until the Iraq war the BBC gave Tony Blair the benefit of the doubt in scandal after scandal. Among newspapers, the Prime Minister could count on the support of the Murdoch press, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and, for much of the time, the Guardian and the Independent. The prospect of the war against Iraq, and its aftermath, changed things somewhat. The Independent, Guardian, Daily Mirror and Daily Mail constituted the opposition, but they were outweighed by the Murdoch newspapers and the Daily Express, which were joined by the Daily Telegraph, a traditional Blair foe. Even the BBC was only cautiously and subliminally antiwar. During hostilities it carried many gung-ho reports extolling the bravery of our troops.
Whatever Mr Campbell may say, Mr Blair has enjoyed a great deal of support in the media during the war and the subsequent row about weapons of mass destruction. This support is still very much forthcoming. Last week the Prime Minister made what was by any standards an extraordinary admission. In reply to a question from a Tory MP in the Commons, he admitted that when this country went to war against Iraq on 20 March last year he did not know that the so-called weapons of mass destruction were battlefield weapons which could only be fired a short distance. This admission was entirely at odds with the infamous September 2002 dossier, and several speeches by Mr Blair. It is true, as the government maintains, that weapons of mass destruction were not mentioned in the crucial Commons debate of 18 March, but this scarcely matters given the many previous occasions on which they were held out as representing a probable threat to Britain.
Mr Blair could hardly have said that he realised on the eve of war that WMD had very limited capabilities, since such an admission would invite questions as to why he never bothered to tell us. But to say that he did not know that these weapons were of a battlefield variety is only marginally less damning. We go to war in the belief that Saddam may be able to strike against Israel, British troops in Cyprus or even Britain itself, only to discover later that these much vaunted weapons (if they ever existed) could only be fired very short distances. For my money this revelation is more damaging to the government than any of the evidence dismissed by Lord Hutton. And yet the press — our swivel-eyed, attack-dog newspapers so demonised by Alastair Campbell — could not even muster an uncertain growl.
On Thursday, 5 February, the day after Mr Blair’s amazing confession, only the Guardian ‘splashed’ with the news. The Independent, that most indefatigable opponent of the war, gave over its front page to another story arising from the Hutton report. The Daily Mirror had its mind on other things. The Daily Mail put the story inside. The Murdoch-owned Times did manage a short story on its front page, though its raucously pro-war sibling the Sun chose to ignore it altogether. The next day, after Michael Howard had suggested that Mr Blair should resign, the story was taken a little more seriously in some quarters, though not by the Sun, which ran 200 words at the bottom of page two, and a huge picture of Jordan’s bosom on page one. Nor did the Sunday newspapers, apart from the Independent on Sunday, choose to develop it. The Sunday Times, which alone among the Murdoch press has sometimes questioned the government’s veracity over WMD, decided there were more important things going on. As for the BBC, it played down Mr Blair’s revelation in radio and television news bulletins.
The Prime Minister admits that he took us to war believing Saddam presented a considerably greater threat than he actually did, and the British media barely bestir themselves. Perhaps some papers believe that war fatigue is setting in. Idiots eating bugs and exposing their breasts in the Australian jungle are evidently more interesting to some editors, not all of them tabloid. Perhaps some newspapers, and very probably the BBC, felt that following the Hutton report they should go easy on Mr Blair for a while. Another possible explanation is that the hard-core pro-war newspapers, of which the Sun is the most extreme example, are reluctant to print anything which might undermine the case for war — and their championing of it. Whatever the reasons, Mr Blair is a lot more fortunate in the coverage he receives than Mr Campbell would have us believe, and he has good reason to thank Rupert Murdoch for his unflagging support.
One further point. Michael Howard may or may not have been wise to call for Mr Blair’s resignation, but it should not go unremarked that the Tories misled us over WMD quite as much as the government did. On 1 September 2002, more than three weeks before the infamous dossier was published, Iain Duncan Smith wrote an article in the Sunday Times which went even further than Mr Blair had gone at that stage. IDS asked: ‘Does Saddam have the means, the mentality and the motive to pose a direct threat to Britain’s national security? Anyone who believes that Iraq lacks the ability to strike or denies that this capability is growing is deliberately ignoring the evidence or wilfully misconstruing it.’ The Tory leader then suggested that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons before asking himself another question, which he promptly answered. ‘The only question remaining is will he [Saddam] strike against Britain? I believe so.’
Is it any wonder that we went to war when we had such political leaders as Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith — and the Murdoch press?
Two weeks ago I teased the Daily Telegraph for covering page three with pictures and a story about the halfwits (see above) showing off in an Australian jungle. Many other newspapers have been worse offenders. For the red-top tabloids, I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! has been the biggest story of the past few weeks. When the nightmare was over, the Daily Star cleared its first seven pages to write about it and offered its readers more photographs of Jordan with her grotesquely enlarged boobs. The Sun and the Daily Mirror have been scarcely less obsessed.
Nearly 16 million people watched the final episode on ITV. Some of us feel like strangers in our own country. But how many of us are there? One million? Five million? Ten? I ask because a very well-educated and clever man of about 35 told me that he and his equally clever and well-educated wife had been glued to I’m A Celebrity, as were all their clever and well-educated friends. He disapproved of my teasing the Daily Telegraph, whose finger, he felt, was closer to the nation’s pulse than my own.
Perhaps he is right. If so, it is a dreadful thought. I can just about imagine someone with a very well-developed sense of irony watching I’m A Celebrity, but the idea of my clever friend and his wife and their friends being glued to it has made me rather depressed.