LONDON — When its press becomes the story, a country is in a strange shape.
Britain has plenty of causes for concern — from the state of its health, education and transport services to the major question of whether it should join the European common currency. But the obsessive question of the moment in London is the relationship between the New Labour government and the newspapers.
Hardly a day passes without a minister hitting out at press coverage, or a newspaper finding fresh cause for complaint about the administration, sometimes on the thinnest of factual evidence.
The subjects at issue have ranged from whether his officials tried to push Prime Minister Tony Blair into a position of undue prominence at the funeral of the Queen Mother this spring to whether his wife showed undue partisanship in talking of a lack of hope driving young Palestinians to become suicide bombers.
Each side senses a plot — the government sees a cabal of rightwing newspapers trying to deliver the knockout blow the Conservative opposition is unable to land, while the journalists concerned see the administration trying to operate a coverup and to control information. This means that the running row goes well beyond the usual give-and-take between the media and those in power as the government seems more concerned with fighting a duel against its media critics than with countering the Conservatives.
What the public thinks may be gauged from a distinct decline in the prime minister’s once-overwhelming opinion poll lead and an increase in those who say they distrust the government. The danger is that Blair will find it hard to escape the fighting as he considers whether to hold a referendum on joining the euro-zone, and then moves toward a general election in three years time.
For good or ill, Britain has a long tradition of highly partisan warfare between governments and newspapers, in which truth is often the casualty. In the 1930s, the hostility of great press barons led the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to accuse them of exercising “power without responsibility — the prerogative the harlot through the ages.” In the 1980s, the popular rightwing press launched unremitting campaigns against the Labour leader Neil Kinnock, while the leftwing newspapers could find nothing good to say about Margaret Thatcher.
If that is old history, more recently, Blair’s born-again Labour Party made great use of the media in the mid-1990s to undermine the Tory Party and the government of John Major, turning political spin into an art form. So now, when Blair and his colleagues take issue with the way rightwing papers are allegedly distorting facts against them, they all too easily appear to be complaining about something they once used without scruples.
The scale of their reaction gives the impression that the press attacks have got under their skin. In some cases, such as the row over Blair and the Queen Mother’s funeral, the government appears to have overreacted, and was unable to prove its complaint that the whole thing had been made up by a couple of rightwing journalists. In other instances, such as Mrs. Blair’s remarks about suicide bombers, it has been dragged into the bitter controversy over Israel and the Palestinians by pro-Israeli papers.
Most seriously, the row gives a growing impression that both the government and its media critics live in a goldfish bowl stretching from the House of Commons and ministries in Whitehall to newspaper offices, but no further. The deeper problems the country faces are seen as being ignored.
When Blair held the first of a series of press conferences in June, the initial questioning focused not on health education or transport or a forthcoming European summit, but on the government’s image and the question of spin.
That shows how far the prime minister has come from the time when he was first elected in 1997 amid expectations that he would set the country on a new course. By keeping to Conservative financial programs in its first term to ensure economic stability, New Labour prevented itself from getting to grips with the decay of British public services. Instead of making a major effort, it was all too often reduced to spin — announcing a program several times over as if they were new initiatives each time, and setting target figures without providing the means with which to achieve them.
Now that Blair has declared that he is going to do something about public services, the government is faced with the sheer size of the problem after decades of decline. Putting the National Health Service right or rebuilding the railways is not a job for a single term in government, but a long-term project lasting into the next decade.
Progress is being made, but it is incremental, and not the kind of headline-grabbing advance that New Labour so badly wants. So, it is hard to avoid the feeling that having a row with the media, instead of snubbing its opponents by ignoring them except where it can show it is on firm ground, appears to represent an easier battleground for a government that has continued its spinning ways well after winning power — as in the suggestion from an official in the Department of Transport that Sept. 11 would be a good day to put out bad news to be lost in the reporting of the New York attack.
If the war with the press continues, Blair could come to be seen as a man who, for all his two big general-election victories, lives for headlines and immediate impact, positive or negative. Despite his proclamations of a long-term vision for his country, he has yet to prove that he has the perseverance to implement it.
With the Conservative Party still weak after its two crushing defeats, the risk is of a vacuum at the heart of politics that could only hold the country back. For the prophet of New Labour to see fighting media opponents as his priority would be a betrayal of all he stood for.
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