PAUL WILENIUS: This is the type of delivery
Tony Blair is not so keen to see. Up to thirteen million papers every day,
full of stories of government troubles, like Mittalgate and Stephen Byers.
And there could be much more to come.
Tony Blair's breakfast time reading's a bit grim these days. The national
newspapers appear to have gone on a feeding frenzy, biting chunks out of
some of his Ministers, some of his policies and even the way he runs his
government. Now every government has its ups and down with the media, but
there is a fear that this could signal a return to the bad old days when
relentless attacks by a hostile press and about success of Labour leaders
PIERS MORGAN: I think there's a pretty
choppy ocean out there at the moment full of sharks and the carcasses of
new Labour are being thrown to the sharks one by one, the tough ones are
coming through it and surviving, the weak ones are being chewed to pieces
and the atmosphere is pretty febrile.
CHARLES CLARKE MP: There are a number of newspapers
in which it's impossible to get even a fair hearing for what we are saying
or doing. But I think the greatest danger for us, indeed for any politicians,
is to say well that's being said in a certain newspaper, we're therefore
going to divert what we do and how we do it for that reason. We have to
keep firm to our central path. But by the same token we have to do what
we can to contest some of the distortions which are there.
WILENIUS: Labour has a long history
of wars with the press. Fleet Street's savagery condemned Neil Kinnock
to election defeat, while fierce attacks undermined the Wilson and Callaghan
MARTIN LINTON MP: I've always believed that the
press does in certain circumstances have quite a big influence over the
voters. As I, you know, I wrote a book about the Sun's influence in the
'92 election, which certainly convinced me that there are certain circumstances
where the press can be influential.
WILENIUS: A new more peaceful relationship
seemed to be unfolding under Tony Blair. He famously won over the Sun and
also a stunning election victory in 1997. But within a few years the first
signs of renewed hostilities began to emerge, over issues like the Dome.
Although broadly, newspapers were still supportive, attacks over foot and
mouth, tiny pension increases and high fuel tax rises began to hit home.
ROSIE BOYCOTT: The government were kind
of outraged that we took a very strong stand against them, and it came
very much down to who are you there for. I mean they seem to see us as
kind of an extension of the New Labour project, but we weren't, I mean
a paper is for its readers, that is your life blood, you are there to defend
WILENIUS: The mood among newspaper
political journalists, like these attending a briefing at Number Ten last
week, has changed in recent weeks. It's moved from critical to hostile.
The Cabinet discussed this problem at Chequers on Friday; there was concern
that the newspaper agenda has overshadowed the government's message.
The morning lobby meeting between political journalists and Number Ten
has in recent weeks turned into a bitter Cold War. The big question is:
what's happened to Labour's legendary media control and why are they facing
a near daily onslaught from national newspapers?
One reason is that despite some successes, the Tories are still not seen
as a fully effective opposition to Labour's slick media operation run by
Alastair Campbell. So many newspaper editors and journalists feel it's
now even more important to question the government, and to make sure that
its policies and personalities are scrutinised.
BOYCOTT: I mean the press has a
big role at the moment, especially in an environment where you've got an
enfeebled opposition. The press is very important that it does go over
things, it doesn't just take things at face value and doesn't just repeat
and parrot the government line, and the problem for the government at the
moment is that there are a lot of holes in the strategy.
WILENIUS: The newspapers say they
are only reflecting the growing concerns of their readers, who are still
waiting to see things get a lot better under this government. But there
are suggestions that instead of keeping the promises made to win over voters
and papers at election time, the government is still obsessed with trying
to get good headlines.
TREVOR KAVANAGH: I think that what they've tried
to do is to make every story a good story and if possible a brilliant story,
and in the process they've come out with sometimes rather dodgy statistics
and figures and when they've been caught out they've found that that has
tainted the attitude of journalists and even voters to some of the subsequent
announcements. People no longer fully believe statistics that come out
of the government.
MORGAN: The rather confident maybe
arrogant streak that they've always had in government has been replaced
by a more defensive, edgy, tetchy, not quite so confident, not sure of
where they're going attitude, which is dangerous for them, because it will
increase the feeding frenzy atmosphere with the media who sense vulnerability
for the first time in New Labour, and it's dangerous for the country because
it means their eye is off the ball on policy, which is where it should
WILENIUS: At first Labour's media
machine seemed to be in control. But recently the worm has turned. It's
looked as though the government may have something to hide, and that it
may not be as honest as people thought. So now papers want to assert their
own independence, and follow their own political agendas.
MORGAN: I think for a period in
opposition ironically when Alastair Campbell was here working as political
editor for example, we became a sort of Pravda, an extension of the PR
machine. But it went too far and we became, certainly Alastair has used
this phrase with me recently, a Labour paper and his whinge now constantly
is we're no longer a Labour paper, as if in some way I'd sit back and say
oh I'm really sorry about that. You know I don't want us to be a Labour
paper, I want us to be a Labour supporting paper and they're two different
KAVANAGH: Well I don't think that the Sun
could ever be taken for granted by any political party or any polit...,
or any government in office. I think that we watch and observe and I think
that we will make our decisions as we've done in the last several election
campaigns on the basis of the arguments that have been put forward.
WILENIUS: Delivering better public
services in Britain is the prime aim of Tony Blair's government, although
achieving that aim could become harder if the newspapers keep up their
onslaught. That's a real danger, according to those who should know.
LINTON: When the press takes to
criticising the government, whatever it does you know, there is certainly
a danger that they will succeed some time in, in forcing a minister to
step down when maybe the facts don't justify it, or forcing the government
to abandon a policy that is actually justified .
CLARKE: I think the electorate
would be very, very distressed if they thought we were saying okay, let's
forget what we need to do on schools, let's forget what we need to do on
hospitals, let's concentrate on dealing with what the Mail said yesterday.
What they want us to see us doing is focusing on really making sure we
do try and deliver and as I say they'll judge us on that and rightly so.
WILENIUS: But it's the sheer scale
and the intensity of the attacks which is worrying senior Ministers. Opinion
poll support for the Labour government is still extraordinarily high. But
have the first signs appeared that Tony Blair's own ratings are starting
BOYCOTT: I think it's perfectly
possible that the Teflon coating could be eroded yes, I mean if, if it
drip drip drips, if there aren't enough good things to put in its place,
if we have more instance like Steven Byers, if we start attacking Iraq
and we stay that on side with the Americans, especially after the steel
tariffs announcement of the earlier part of the week. I think that if this
drip, drip carries on or turns in to a flood that the next election could
see a marked swing away from Labour. I think you'll get fewer people voting.
LINTON: If this line, the current
line is pursued where everything the government does is attacked by almost
every paper, then that will have a corrosive effect, I mean it gets into
the political system, politicians spend less time talking to journalists
because they don't see any point because they're going to be criticised
WILENIUS: But what's more, battle
remains to be joined on the one issue which could spark a full scale war
with parts of Fleet Street - the Euro. Sceptical newspapers have already
vilified Tony Blair over it, and some inside the Cabinet believe this opposition
to the Euro could lie behind growing newspaper antagonism.
KAVANAGH: On the Euro I think we have more
than a difference of opinion. We are utterly at odds with one another.
Tony Blair appears to want to take Britain into the single currency and
we think it would be a grave and enduring error.
CLARKE: There's some of the newspaper
groups who are owned by people totally hostile to any development of the
European union, and they're concerned about how things are going to go
in that direction. They want to put the government under more pressure
because they fear that we will decide to, to go down that course.
WILENIUS: We all know that today's
headlines are tomorrow's fish and chip paper. But despite the ferocious
attack of the national newspapers on the government, Labour is still popular
with the voters. But those attacks could become more intense and sustained
and the government may have to make a choice between headline chasing or
standing up to its critics.
MORGAN: What I sense with, with
Labour at the moment is they're still trying to fight the media, nothing
they like more than, than insulting us, in berating us, in deriding us
because they're like the, the school bully who suddenly has an uprising
amongst the other boys in the school, can't win, but still thinks he can.
That's how I describe it. They can't beat the media.
CLARKE: There's no way we can be
blown off course. Our course is set by the election and the electorate
that voted on June 7th. They said to us you have to deliver good quality
schools, good quality health care, good quality transport, safe streets,
strong communities, and a strong economy which is really trying to deal
with poverty. That's the message that we've been sent and that's what we're
going to carry through.
WILENIUS: The government may hope
that if it ignores the newspapers, yesterday's nasty headlines will soon
be forgotten. But as history tells us, after a while bad news does tend