The Tories hope (and Labour fears) that the political weather is changing

The media are sounding bored with the story of everything going Labour's way.

There is a lot of political meteorology going on in Westminster at the moment. MPs are acutely sensitive to what they see as seasonal changes in the way they are portrayed by the media. They aren’t wrong to detect that press coverage tends to shift in weather patterns, with a prevailing wind blowing at the backs of some candidates and hard in the faces of others.

Mostly, those trends track opinion polls and perceptions of one party leader’s performance. But they can also become self-sustaining – feedback loops of positive or negative coverage. Besides, journalists hunt in packs. Once a pattern for coverage is established it can fix a distorting lens on the news agenda, through which every detail is filtered. Thus, for example, when Gordon Brown was enjoying his short honeymoon as Prime Minister – respected for seriousness of purpose and an earnest demeanour – David Cameron was going through one of those periods where a lack of policy heft was drawing criticism.

It was summer and images of the Conservative leader in shorts on the beach seemed to suggest a boyish unreadiness for office, as compared to Brown’s besuited seriousness. Fast forward a year. Brown’s leadership was in crisis and Cameron was looking more like the next Prime Minister. Suddenly the same holiday snaps made the Tory leader look like an ordinary guy, at ease with himself and the country; his Labour counterpart was robotic and aloof. The people had not changed but in journalistic terms, the story was different.

At the start of this year, Ed Miliband looked weak. David Cameron was enjoying a poll bounce after his (non) veto of a European treaty. Labour MPs were anxious and chattering nervously about the inadequacy of their leadership. The whole opposition project looked shaky and everything Miliband did seemed to feed into that narrative. A misspelled tweet referring to an 80s quiz programme as “blackbusters” instead of “blockbusters” was treated as an enormous gaffe, practically rocking the foundations of the Labour party.

Then came a Labour spring. George Osborne’s budget failed. It got tangled up in a whole bunch of bungled policy presentations and botched media performances now known collectively as the “omnishambles”. Suddenly, Miliband was to be taken seriously as a potential Prime Minister. Divisions in the coalition were all potentially fatal; the Tory leadership was in question. Everything Cameron did has subsequently been shone through the new jaundiced lens. Take, for example, reports that the Prime Minister sipped wine while administering his recent reshuffle – a fairly unremarkable detail in most respects. Except it was treated as proof that Cameron is heartless and arrogant. He quaffed claret and failed to offer a glass to his brutally despatched underlings, like a drunken lord dismissing his downtrodden staff.  Two years ago it would have been evidence of what a supremely confident and relaxed man he is, effortlessly carrying out the duties of high office when his predecessor was surly and uptight. Cameron the natural.

Obviously these changes in presentation are informed by choices the politicians themselves make. Mistakes and successes are amplified; confidence breeds good coverage, insecurity invites a kicking. The budget provoked bad headlines because it was not, by most standards, a good budget. Miliband got a fairer hearing because he held his nerve, made some judgement calls and said things that forced his party and the media to pay closer attention.

Nonetheless, the press pack gets bored with any particular story and impatient for a new one. Many Westminster fingers are currently being held aloft, sensing the wind changing. So Miliband could be Prime Minister? Really? So what’s he really on about? And what’s all this about friction with Ed Balls? That’s the story, surely. And wait a minute! Could those be green shoots of economic recovery just visible puncturing the arid soil? A bit of growth and surely the Tories can start closing the gap in the polls. Of course they’d be behind mid-term when forced to take unpopular decisions, but compare the personal ratings of Miliband and Cameron. When it comes down to it, the nation has a clear favourite to be Prime Minister – this could be the colour of political coverage for the new season.

Everything depends, of course, on whether the leaders and their parties can get through party conferences without any mishaps. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the whole direction of politics is dictated by mood swings of editors, reporters and commentators with short attention spans. But I detect from Labour and Tories alike (in the form of anxiety on the former side; hope on the latter) that a different weather system is drifting in.

On the Conservative side, much depends on whether or not a huge Boris Johnson-shaped cloud rains on Cameron’s conference parade. There is clearly concern in Downing Street about the PM being upstaged.

For Labour, concern is centred on the leader’s speech. Last year’s intervention from the podium got mixed reviews to say the least. Only later, when the weather had changed, did it become conventional wisdom to see Miliband’s disquisition on predatory and productive modes of capitalism as a perceptive, agenda-setting insight. Now there is pressure on the leader to advance his position with a more concrete – and more pithily phrased offer; something that starts to sketch the outlines of a winnable campaign. The advice from one senior Labour figure close to Miliband, not terribly helpful but certainly true and applicable to Cameron too, and Nick Clegg for that matter: “Just don’t screw it up.”

The pre-conference advice from one senior Labour figure close to Miliband: "Just don’t screw it up." Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.