The lynchings that never happened

Welcome though such restraint must be, it is so unlike the normal behaviour of our feral beasts that

For a decade and more the standard response of the press to a cock-up or a crisis has been to hound the nearest minister until he or she resigned.

You know the drill: hacks on the doorstep shouting impertinent questions; reporters digging up increasingly arcane and overblown exposés; columnists off the Richter scale of fury; pious editorials declaring that honour demands a resignation.

It rarely fails, and editors can always turn to it when they are feeling nasty. So why haven't they been turning to it lately?

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, appeared to tick every box. Northern Rock and the missing discs made him a serial bungler with millions of victims, while he also fluffed his own defence in the Commons. Worse, he has no purchase on public affection so he never would be missed and, like Norman Lamont, he has a face made for cartoons.

Yet there was no auto-da-fé. Yes, he was mocked and criticised, but the word "resign" was scarcely heard. Jeremy Clarkson even pleaded in the Sun: "Leave Darling alone."

Des Browne, the defence/ Scottish secretary, has also had a bad patch, with ex-generals denouncing neglect and penny-pinching in the forces. Browne's fan base is small, his record inglorious (remember the sailors captured by Iran) and the two-jobs thing a joke waiting to happen, while anything that makes life harder for British soldiers actually fighting wars would normally be political dynamite. But again, the lynch mob stayed home.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, is another who might easily have had a good hounding by now, given her department's comic inability to count immigrants, yet she too is still with us.

The likes of David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and others in a line going all the way back to Cecil Parkinson must be wondering what has gone wrong, or right, with the press. Instead of the traditional bum's rush - and it feels strange to be drawing attention to such a thing - we have an outbreak of reasonableness.

Yes, there has been anger, but it has rarely been ad hominem in the full-on, in-the-name-of-God-go sense. Yes, the head of the revenue service and the general secretary of the Labour Party have had to resign, but they don't count. We are talking ministers here, and they have been largely let off.

Even Gordon Brown has had a remarkably gentle ride, with the press of all flavours urging him to shape up rather than to ship out.

We might expect Kevin Maguire, writing in the Mirror, to suggest that "Brown needs to get a grip on his administration before it's too late", but there is surely something unexpected in George Pascoe-Watson's calm words in the Sun: "Mr Brown has a mounting in-tray but rightly says he will be judged on how he handles the ups and downs." Even the Telegraph seems to offer the Prime Minister more time: "The British public does not forgive indecision in an era of rising anxiety. Mr Brown must act more quickly, delegate and let go of grievances . . ."

Such restraint is welcome, but it is so unlike the normal behaviour of our feral beasts that it raises the question, what is going on?

I can think of possible explanations, but the idea that Brown's courtship of the Mail and the Murdoch titles has been so successful they are deliberately going easy on him is not among them. It is just not possible to square the entire press.

A better bet is that recent cock-ups have lacked the element of supposed personal advantage or hypocrisy that is often at the heart of big ministerial houndings. Papers and their readers, in other words, won't tolerate string-pulling or plundering, but they might forgive blundering.

Another possibility is that we have to hate ministers before we hound them, and Brown's team need more time before they acquire the familiarity that can breed contempt. Or it could just be too soon since we last changed prime ministers to be contemplating big changes again.

Or perhaps - just perhaps - editors have concluded that public lynchings are unfair and undignified, and resolved not to use the tactic again. No, I don't believe it either.

No names, no pack drill

Is the McCann virus catching? The Daily Mail, which has been relatively cool about the missing girl story over the months, seems to be giving it more prominence, even though the paper has little new to say and its sources seem no better than anybody else's.

A recent article on the case contained the following attributions: "it has been claimed", "according to sources", "a police source told the Portuguese newspaper 24 Horas" and "leaks from inside the police investigation have suggested".

How long before we reach "according to a bloke I met in a bar"?

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future