BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.03.02

Film: Paul Wilenius reports on the growing antagonism between the press and the Government.

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 and governments. 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 governments. 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 them. 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 be. 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 things. 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 to suffer. 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 anyway. 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 to stick.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.