Weekend Round-Up -- 15 September 2008

The commentariat was wrong-footed by the Labour rebellion, but it's running to catch up.

It was a difficult balancing act, keeping abreast of the Liberal conference (no one mentions the Democrat bit any more) while watching the Labour Party tearing itself apart.

Andrew Rawnsley did his best to sum up the situation for Nick Clegg and the implications of a Liberal Democrat drift to the right for Labour.

This we can say for certain. The repositioning of the Lib Dems is further bad news for Gordon Brown or whoever else takes Labour into the next election.
The Clegg strategy makes the atmospherics of politics even more hostile to the government. When the Lib Dems join the Tories in deploring the level of taxation and decrying government waste, Labour is left looking isolated and less credible when it tries to defend its record. As if things were not dire enough already for Labour, they now face the prospect that the next general election will be two against one.

But most columnists concentrated on Labour's woes. I thought Matthew d'Ancona was wrong to play down the crisis for the Prime Minsiter.

Next week's conference will have its rumblings and its distractions, but it will also - by definition - be Mr Brown's show and his unity rally.

There will be squalls, coded criticisms and a beauty contest between the potential leadership contenders. But there will not be outright rebellion.

This is not a time for predictions, as the BBC's Nick Robinson discovered.

Janet Daley was on form this morning. I love her challenge to the big men in the Cabinet to stick their heads above the parapet rather than leaving it to braver women on the backbenches.

Watching that procession of female Labour MPs nobody's ever heard of flinging themselves over the cliff at the weekend, I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher's remark: 'In politics, when you want something said, ask a man. When you want something done, ask a woman.'

This characteristically perceptive insight may help to explain why it has been a procession of little girls who have been prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and dared to demand a leadership election, while the big, brave men in Cabinet have cowered in the shadows."

Marvellous stuff.

But the best piece of the weekend was by Nick Cohen in the Observer, who identified a canker eating at the heart of Gordon Brown's 10 Downing Street. In a piece with the glorious headline Call Off Your Mafioso Aides, Mr Brown, Cohen condemns the briefing operation carried out against Brown's critics such as Ivan Lewis. He concludes:

Many are now grasping that no law says Gordon Brown is the only Labour politician allowed to use the sneak attack; that nothing in the Labour party's constitution prevents his targets responding in kind.

As rebels challenge his leadership this weekend, Brown should make his case for continuing in power honourably and fight his critics in the open. If he does not, he will find that the tactics of his made men will destroy his premiership.

As someone who has experienced at first hand the inept mafioso tactics of Brown's political gangsters, I could not agree more.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder