The media column - Peter Wilby on why ministers are touchy

Ministers profess indifference to the views of the chattering classes. But it can't be pleasant if,

I shall not attempt to adjudicate in the civil liberties row between Tony Blair and Charles Clarke on one side and the liberal press on the other. To do so would require several more pages. In any case, I am a bit of a wimp on civil liberties. There's something rather creepy about the government potentially holding my DNA on a database, but I cannot for the life of me see circumstances in which it would infringe my freedom.

What is extraordinary to my mind is the scale and detail of the ministerial response to criticism on this subject. Henry Porter has written several times over the past three months in the Observer of how Labour, "like no other administration before it . . . threatens our rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the sovereignty of parliament". Blair enters a lengthy e-mail exchange for publication, after first talking personally to the editor, Roger Alton, about what Downing Street now calls "our Henry Porter problem". The Independent's Simon Carr gives 34 examples of "losses suffered by civil society". Clarke sends a 5,000-word rebuttal. In the Guardian, Jenni Russell argues that democracy is being hijacked by "a small, determined group". In a public lecture, Clarke launches into her as though he were a spurned lover.

It is not only very odd; it is also a cheek. As a contributor to the Guardian's comment blog points out, ministers couldn't find time before the Iraq war to tell the press its "45 minutes from doom" headlines were rubbish. Now they expend thousands of words on three not very well-known liberal journalists, charging them with "poison", "intellectual laziness" and "misrepresentation and deceit". Yet the right-wing press has been accusing new Labour of totalitarian tendencies for years, using less evidence but stronger language.

It's not as if ministers don't have friends in the liberal press. John Rentoul, in the Independent and its Sunday sister, puts the Blairite case with tender, loving care. Kamal Ahmed and Patrick Wintour, of the Observer and Guardian respectively, are largely sympathetic to new Labour. Two Guardian commentators, Michael White and Martin Kettle, sprang to Clarke's defence on the comment blog. The latter referred to "second-rate journalists" and particularly berated Carr for "sloppy, arrogant, right-wing hyperbole". But even he was puzzled by Clarke's vehemence.

So what's the explanation? The obvious one is that, faced with losing local election votes to the BNP, Labour wants to emphasise its credentials on law and order. What better way to do that than by picking a fight with wet liberal journalists? But I wonder if there is more to it. Ministers seem genuinely upset at being called "fascist" - though I do not think any liberal journalist has used the word. Are they worried about losing the metropolitan chattering classes? Not for their votes - there aren't enough of them - but for the sake of ministers' own self-esteem. These, after all, are the social circles in which most ministers and their spouses move. They profess indifference to the opinions of north London dinner tables. But it can't be very pleasant if, every time you go out, people accuse you of destroying democracy.

You have to be nice to others when they're 80, unless they are paedophiles or Nazi war criminals. The Queen's birthday, therefore, unnerved even the most reliable republicans. The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland eulogised her at length - "one of the most accomplished politicians of the modern era . . . near-faultless job . . . grateful nation" - before arguing we should have a republic when she's dead.

I fear we republicans are in for many lean years. The British, though they prefer to incarcerate their own grannies in bleak, communal "homes", treat older people in public life with exaggerated deference (think of Tony Benn). The Daily Mail announced, as though it were dramatic news, that the Queen will never abdicate. Of course she won't; the courtiers wouldn't let her. As long as an over-80 is in place, the monarchy is safe.

A time bomb is primed to go off under the Blairs. Or so the Mail assured us on 22 April, as it has been assuring us since September 2003. Originally, we were told the explosive device would be Carole Caplin's memoirs; now Caplin's mother, Sylvia, a medium, is dictating (appropriately enough) to a ghost writer. Either way, we are promised revelations about Leo and his MMR jab, and about how the Blairs consulted the spirit world on the location of Saddam Hussein's WMDs (so what? It makes as much sense as asking the intelligence services).

It is hard to see that these disclosures can bring down the Prime Minister. But the Mail also insists, repeatedly, that we shall get details of Carole's "intimate" friendship with him, and if he survives the honours scandal, he won't survive that. The Mail's readers' ribs must be sore from all this nudging. What is being implied here? I think we should be told.

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