The Herald (Glasgow)

June 13, 2002

Why Downing Street alarm bells are ringing over relations with the press

BYLINE: Analysis By Catherine Macleod Political Editor


LENGTH: 535 words


THE simmering tensions between the press and the government erupted into the public domain yesterday as the government mounted an operation to counter months of negative headlines since Labour won its second term of office in June 2001.

Almost immediately, the effort appeared counterproductive as the government's critics and enemies, in the media and beyond, declared open season on politicians, civil servants and special advisers.

So what has gone wrong in the relationship between a government, still 12 points ahead in the polls, and a media still not enamoured with the Tory opposition?

David Miller, a reader in the media department at Stirling University, said the system was "institutionally corrupt", accusing civil servants, journalists, and particularly politicians, of conspiring to damage political engagement.

Alastair Campbell, the director of communications and strategy in Downing Street and the bete noire of many political journalists, believes the media have set themselves up as the political opposition since "the Tories have vacated field on policy". He argues "there is a game going on in which sections of the press want to denigrate politics and all sense of perspective gets lost".

Mr Campbell, who ran a Rolls-Royce media operation in the run-up to the 1997 general election, says he is now much less worried about determining tomorrow's headlines. Many Labour MPs, from the cabinet to the back benches, often perplexed and fed up with the "spin machine", will welcome the change of heart but will wait to be convinced that he means it.

Greg Philo, professor of communications at Glasgow University, argues the government "are wrong to worry too much about the press" but claims they have brought many of the problems upon themselves.

Condemning "scurrilous" deals with the Murdoch press, Professor Philo questions the basis of the government's complaints. He asks: "What is it they are objecting to?

They have avoided policies and issues so much they have started to look shifty and have got caught out. They have a love affair with business and took the money. It was a kind of madness, they cosied up to Murdoch. They can't have it all ways".

Charles Clarke, chairman of the Labour party, led the charge against the media in yesterday's Times, condemning much journalism as "pious", "hypocritical" and "sometimes entirely manufactured", but Mr Clarke's intervention immediately infuriated many of his parliamentary colleagues who wondered "why he was diverted by a sideshow that had nothing to do with running the country".

Mr Miller has some sympathy with Mr Clarke but believes the government are "the authors of their own misfortune".

He said: "There is some legitimacy in his complaint. What he says about some journalists is true but it also true of the government. They bullied, adopted sophisticated public relations and rebuttal methods, and constantly tried to manipulate the media".

Last night, Mr Clarke had embarked on a fruitless round of media interviews which at every turn appeared to make matters worse. While Mr Clarke's critics will enjoy the spectacle, the alarm bells in Downing Street will only ring louder.