Tag Archives: Brown

Blair at Leveson: Blair never caved in to the newspapers; Brown did

28 May

Blair’s ghost: the medium on media

Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus tells of the fall of a talented man driven mad by his own passions and desires for riches and glory. It is the story of Mozart’s rival and lesser musician called Salieri. In the final scene, we see a broken man who gives his last speech:

Now I go to become a ghost myself. I will stand in the shadows when you come to this earth in your turns. And when you feel the dreadful bite of your failures – and hear the taunting of unachievable, uncaring God – I will whisper my name to you: “Antonio Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities!”

Today we saw a ghost who has been lurking in the shadows for some time, about whom only a few wizened and whispering old hacks care. It is Antonio Blairi, the Patron Saint of Mediacracy, come to prove that he had no interest in the media, media barons or media ownership.

The central charge against him: he was too fixated on what the newspapers thought. He denied this. When asked if the media ever distracted him from his job as PM, Blair said they never distracted him from “the main issues” of the day.

The misfortune is, “the main issues” were media-driven. To manage “the main issues” – be it a silly comment made by a minister, or the latest media panic – you need a media officer. Blair had a dozen: a Chief of Staff, a Communications Director, a Deputy Communications Director, a Director of Government Relations, a Strategy Adviser, among pointless others.

Alastair Campbell was Blair’s closest lackey. A cursory glance at his diaries show the trivia he dealt in. One can’t help think, reading the diaries 15 years later, why did this matter? Why did they care so much? On the one hand, listening to the media is good – in fact, healthy for democracy. The latest U-turns on planning reform and secret courts – in the face of media pressure – not only make for better legislation; they make democracy a more active thing than simply the process of voting every 5 years.

On the other hand, spending a large chunk of the day reading the newspapers, worrying about the angle, phoning Tony to discuss the narrative, phoning up hacks to berate them or toast them, checking on the 24-hour news channels – one can’t help but ask, what was the point? Here is a fascinating clip of the team, Tony and Alastair, in action (12:10). Watch the frozen look on their faces as they realise they are being filmed. It is like watching two schoolboys being caught up to no good.

We go too far, however, if we say Blair caved in to the newspapers. His aim was to manage the media, not to let them direct policy. We kid ourselves if we say Blair kept the Thatcher reforms on unions, on privatisation, on tax because of Rupert Murdoch. The truth is, Blair really was that rightwing. On vast areas of policy, from Europe to Iraq, he stayed the course despite a hostile press.

He did things Murdoch hated. He stopped BSkyB buying Manchester United and ITV. He introduced TV regulator Ofcom. He granted the BBC digital channels and a news website. He raised the BBC licence fee 14% above inflation, from £91.50 to £135.50.

The MMR uproar is a case in point. Despite a media frenzy after a report suggested an MMR vaccine caused autism, Tony Blair rose above it, saying:

On the contrary, the vaccine which [sic] is used throughout the world, helps prevent the spread of diseases that can, if contracted, cause very serious damage to children. [Parents can rely on] overwhelming research that has found the alleged link between autism and MMR to be unfounded.

It was Gordon Brown who caved in to newspapers. When he became PM, he set up a TV that screened rolling news all day in the office. Staff said he would shout at it when he was particularly incensed. Even on planes he would want to know the headlines. According to Andrew Ransley, he would badger aides: “What’s the story? What’s the story?” On a trip to the Vatican, an aide said: “Prime Minister meets Pope. Why doesn’t someone tell him that’s the fucking story?”

There is good evidence to suggest he let the media direct policy too. Blair had downgraded cannabis to a class C drug, something Brown had accepted as Chancellor. As PM Brown reclassified it as Class B, despite expert advice and a fall in cannabis use. Second, it is curious that despite Brown’s avowed love for the BBC, the license fee was frozen in real terms. Third, Gordon Brown wanted it to be legal to detain a British citizen without charge for 42 days on suspicion of terrorism. This was explicitly done to charm Murdoch. Brown’s most trusted aide Ed Balls told Anthony Seldon:

 Blair made it very clear to Gordon that he had to come across as tough; the News International people would worry if he was not. That is why he did 42 days.

This is one of the foundations of English liberty: the right not to be held on unknown grounds by the state. Gordon Brown acted like a reverse King John, coaxed by a baron to get rid of a freedom enshrined by Magna Carta. This was a clear contravention of his speech on liberty at the start of his tenure, in which he even hailed Magna Carta as the glorious start of British liberty. This is the man who would say anything to curry favour with the Tory press.

On reflection it is easier to cast Brown in the role of Shaffer’s Salieri. Jealous at a better man’s talents and popularity, he decides to make a pact with God. Salieri will do as God pleases if only He looks kindly on him. When it becomes clear Amadeus (“Beloved of God”) is the favoured one, and God has not kept his side of the bargain, Salieri declares war on God:

So be it! From this time we are enemies, You and I! I’ll not accept it from You – do you hear! They say God is not mocked. I tell you, Man is not mocked! I am not mocked! […] (Yelling) Dio ingiusto – You are the Enemy! I name thee now – Nemico Eterno! 

I can hear the mobile clatter across the room.

In defence of Parliament

26 Oct

What most folk would like to do to parliamentary democracy

David Cameron stands up to the dispatch box.  He starts to speak.

“This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause chaos. What on earth did he mean?”

The Tory benches jeer.

“W-what would cause chaos,” Gordon Brown says, “is if a Conservative government were elected and cause public spending cuts…”

He is drowned out by Labour cheers.

“So there we have it,” Mr Cameron smiles, “the first admission that he thinks he is going to lose.”

HEEEEEEEEEAR!!!

The noise when you are watching Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is terrific. I once watched it from the House of Commons, and I can tell you, it is much louder in the Chamber. It is a noise which comes from the guts of 200-odd mainly privately-educated grown men. It is staggering. It reminds me of the times in Ardingly when a dining room-full of schoolboys would tacitly decide to sing Happy Birthday for no apparent reason other than to panic the junior member of staff on duty. As he or she marched up to find the ringleader, the singing would mysteriously stop. Relieved, he or she would walk away. A nod would be exchanged. You would catch someone’s glance, a glimmer of mischief in each eye. The singing would start over again.

The same juvenile impulse is at play in the Commons. It is juvenile. And yet, that urge to jeer, collectively, as one, gives such a rush. It makes you break away from any Latinate sophistication you once had, and makes you feel truly Anglo-Saxon: as if you are part of some wode-daubed tribe, or a blind-drunk football crowd, or a mud-soaked army about to whop the French. “HEEEEEEEAR!!!” What else can you do if Gordon Brown says he has saved the world? What other alternative is there when Betty Boothroyd tells a Lib Dem to “spit it out”?

PMQs is childish; it is witty; it is riotous fun; it is a fantastically bizarre thing to have as a national institution. That is why I love it.

Others disagree. Tabloid historian Dominic Sandbrook questions whether PMQs is fit-for-purpose in this great documentary marking 50 years of PMQs. The current Speaker, John Bercow, thinks the public hates the noisy futility of it all. I suspect the indifferent British public does get irritated by it. As they are hit by gas bills, petty crime and sluggish growth, they see their politicians behaving like a bunch of school kids. They must think: one, it is a waste of time, and two, it makes politics a question of personalities, not of policies. Both these criticisms are misplaced.

Is it a waste of time? Tony Blair spent the night before and morning preparing for PMQs at 12.00. Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings are great chunks of time to be taken up by a Prime Minister. The PM could be building relations with the French President or fine-tuning education policy. Instead, he takes time out of his job for what is essentially half an hour’s mud-slinging. Moreover, if one is a skilled politician, it is easy to give non-answers to non-questions. Just learn some facts, fit in some gags, prescript your responses: job done. As Blair himself admits, it is “a myth that it’s a great way of holding the prime minister to account. […] In truth, the whole thing is a giant joust.”

Giant joust or not, there is still a function to it. First, it ensures the leader of our country is on top of unemployment figures, health policy and so forth, rather than jetting off chatting to foreign dignitaries. It is important the PM is responsive to what is happening in this country. Second, parliamentary criticism puts pressure on the prime minister to act. Think of the News of the World scandal this year. Knowing Miliband and the rest of the Commons would savage the prime minister if he did nothing, David Cameron was pressured to launch an inquiry and urge Murdoch to drop the BSkyB bid. Far better it is for the executive to be held account by the legislature, rather than be outside of it, as all American Presidents are. Obama is held to account only by the unelected media, not elected politicians. PMQs restores that link between leader and parliament by commanding the PM to be there at least once a week.

What of the idea that it thrusts personality centre-stage? It makes virtues of stagecraft, egotism and dogmatism, and vices of modesty and uncertainty, does it not? That may be true, but that’s politics. As much as we would prefer a wise leader to one that only appears wise, politics will always favour the latter. It has always been that way. Disraeli, Lloyd George, Wilson, Blair: actors, the lot of them. What is Parliament but a theatre? And the greatest show of all is PMQs.

The root of the dissatisfaction, I fear, is merely the modern age’s contempt for politicians. Removing PMQs would not make us respect our politicians any more. They would still be making a mess of the economy, launching illegal wars and avoiding the real problems of our society, as they always have done. Removing PMQs would just make politics more boring, like Germany’s. Everyone would say Ja or Nein, and not jeer or heckle, but just disagree politely, and – what is worse – politicians would be just as awful. Far better for us to have the theatre. Far better for us to have PMQs.