Beware of the Tory press: it's up to its old tricks again


I fear that Tony Blair is on shaky ground in referring the Mail on Sunday to the Press Complaints Commission. The paper last weekend reported indignation among parents in Hammersmith, west London, that the Prime Minister had got his daughter into a local Roman Catholic comprehensive, six miles from Downing Street. At least 11 out of the 24 girls leaving a nearby junior school this summer had been turned down. Blair considers this story a breach of the commission's code of conduct which states that "young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion" and that material about a child's "private life" should not be published solely because of "the fame, notoriety or position" of her parents.

Somehow, I doubt that the complaints commission will find that talking to Hammersmith parents constitutes "intrusion" into Kathryn Blair's schooling or that her parents' choice of school can be described as her "private life". But I am happy to be proved wrong. What is certainly true is that "senior Tories" as quoted by the Mail on Sunday are quite wrong to accuse Blair of "hypocrisy". The Prime Minister has been entirely consistent in his support of middle-class parents' rights to keep their children away from lower-class yobs. This is precisely the complaint that many in the teaching profession and the Labour Party make against the government's support for what is grandly called "the parents' right to choose". If Blair has elbowed his way into a superior school, he is doing no more than what he has recommended - notably in radio comments about inner-city schools last week - to other pushy, professional parents.

That, however, is not the main concern of this column. Whatever its ethical shortcomings, the Mail on Sunday story shows that, contrary to metropolitan wisdom, the right-wing press is no longer under the thumb (if it ever was) of Blair and the No 10 press office.

Papers such as the Mail, the Sun and the Times have been in some difficulty with this government. Blair is the most popular prime minister of modern times and, as the Sun's rather half-hearted efforts with the "most dangerous man in Britain" showed, it is simply not credible to present him as some kind of demon bent on destroying the British way of life. Nor can he easily be charged with incompetence, double-dealing, weakness or socialism - the other accusations normally made against a Labour prime minister. Further, the pre-election scare - that, once elected, old Labour, red in tooth and claw, would re-emerge to control the agenda and perhaps overthrow Blair - now looks ridiculous.

But this is still a Labour government and, as we on the left too easily forget, while it isn't raising taxes, it isn't cutting them, either. Though the likes of Alastair Campbell and, until recently, Charlie Whelan can spin the odd "positive" story, the Tory press soon reverts to type.

This can be most generally illustrated by the recent spate of stories about ministerial extravagance - trips on Concorde, nights in plush hotels, and so on. They began in the Sunday Times and something of the sort is nearly always trotted out at this stage of a Labour government. Here, the only hypocrisy is the journalists'. Until the 1960s, Express reporters were ordered to stay at the best hotel in town because to do otherwise would tarnish the image of a great newspaper. Even now, journalists on, say, the Mail papers do not exactly stint themselves. National newspaper reporters live like millionaires at work, travelling by taxi and first-class rail, eating in the best restaurants and staying in the best hotels. In their private lives, however, they drive second-hand Fords, take self-catering holidays in Cornwall and only reluctantly treat their children to a birthday outing at McDonald's. In all this, they are similar to Labour politicians.

You can see more examples of growing anti-Labour bile in the coverage of Europe, the trade unions and school selection. But the best recent example I can find of old-style Tory press nonsense comes from the Daily Mail. "Pensioners ARE worse off under Labour," proclaimed the headline. The eye was immediately drawn to a table showing "the minus side" (£355 million) and "the plus side" (£340 million). Net loss to pensioners: £15 million. Loss to each individual pensioner under Labour: £1.56 a year. It's only when you see that the minus side includes abolition of tax relief on private medical insurance and its reduction on mortgage interest - both affecting a minority of pensioners - that you realise the story doesn't justify the headline.

Perhaps its true significance, though, was that the details (if not the spin) came from the Liberal Democrats. And that tells us the real reason for the relatively easy ride that Labour has got from the Tory papers. The Conservative Party itself is in such disarray that it no longer feeds adequate lines to its stooges among the political correspondents and senior editors. Be sure that, once the Tory propaganda machine is in full working order again, the Mail, the Sun and the rest will be back to normal, particularly now that the opposition has settled on an acceptably Eurosceptic line. They will continue to struggle with Blair, who has a remarkable ear for the cadences of Middle England prejudices, but, as government policies take effect and sometimes (inevitably) fail, they will find ample material to resume their long-standing jihad against Labour.

The lesson for ministers and spin-doctors is that they should stop trying to indulge the right-wing papers. Peter Mandelson's resignation, it should be noted, was precipitated not by the initial revelations in the Guardian but by the bad reception they got in papers like the Sun. The new Labour press machine will eventually see that this is a zero-sum game. I hope that their old friends on the journalistic left are then still willing to lend a hand.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.