The Sun's vulgar campaign against Brown

Murdoch should call off this shameful and tawdry campaign

The Sun has never handled politicians with kid gloves. During the exchange rate mechanism crisis in 1992, the then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, famously told John Major: "I've got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I'm going to pour it all over your head." But the paper's personal campaign against Gordon Brown marks a new level of vulgarity.

Its decision to attack Brown relentlessly over the spelling errors in a letter of condolence, with little or no reference to his damaged eyesight, was questionable enough, but it's the tabloid's persistent exploitation of a mother's grief for political purposes that is truly shameful.

There is no doubting the sincerity of Jacqui Janes, the mother of the dead soldier, but are we really to believe that she decided of her own volition to record her painfully awkward exchange with the Prime Minister?

The scribblers of Wapping would do well to listen to their former colleague George Pascoe-Watson, who has publicly expressed his concerns over the Sun's coverage. As John Rentoul reports, the red-top's former political editor said that it was "reasonable" to argue the paper was using Janes's grief to attack Brown and declared that there was no doubt Brown "cares passionately about the care of our troops".

I agree with those who say Brown's letter should have been given a quick once-over by a No 10 aide, but one could equally point to this as a refreshing departure from convention. A meticulously edited letter may have been more popular. It certainly would have been less personal.

It is something of an irony that this renewed assault on Brown should follow Rupert Murdoch's public expression of regret over the Sun's stance. In his most recent interview he said: "The editors in Britain, for instance, have turned very much against Gordon Brown, who is a friend of mine. I regret it."

Murdoch's words have been dismissed as a cynical front by Roy Greenslade and Michael White, but they reflect what Michael Wolff, author of the Murdoch biography The Man Who Owns the News, has long reported: that Murdoch has never been personally enthusiastic about the Sun's defection to the Tories and only nodded through the decision to keep his son and heir apparent, James Murdoch, onside.

As Wolff, who spent more than 50 hours interviewing Murdoch, wrote shortly after the Sun's announcement: "There may not be another politician in Rupert's nearly 60 years of helping to shoehorn the leaders of three countries into office who has personally appealed to him as much as Gordon. Rupert's voice changes when he talks about him. He gets ruminative (and Murdoch is not a ruminative man), and sentimental, and almost glassy-eyed."

It's partly a family thing: like Brown's father, the Reverend John Brown, Murdoch's paternal grandfather was a Scottish Presbyterian minister.

If he has any sense of dignity or loyalty, Murdoch should get on the phone to Wapping and call off this shameful, tawdry campaign.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era