Show Hide image

If Andy Burnham doesn't fix his relationship with the Sun, he's dead meat

I've interviewed Andy Burnham. He's a great guy, but if he doesn't fix his relationship with the Sun, he's doomed, says broadcaster Tom Latchem.

Andy Burnham shook my hand ahead of our interview with a grip firmer than most other politicians I’ve met.  He has an easy charm and had no difficulty finding common ground as we discussed two of my favourite topics – mid-90s indie music and the prospect of my football team, AFC Bournemouth, managing to stay in the Premier League.

He also seemed more open and relaxed in his own skin than a lot of MPs, but perhaps more notably carried with him none of the pomposity of many senior politicians. The prospective Labour leader strikes me as a decent, principled man – which is perhaps unsurprising, given his assiduous work with Hillsborough families to bring about the inquiry that they so deserved.

Burnham is a proud Liverpudlian who was directly affected by that awful day in Sheffield in 1989. An Everton fan, he was at the other FA Cup semi-final but returned to Liverpool to speak to his traumatised friends who witnessed first-hand the horror that took place in Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium. He speaks with genuine emotion about his memories of the time.

He has since worked tirelessly alongside the bereaved families on the Justice for the 96 campaign, understandably forging a close bond. And so it would hardly be surprising if he felt a lingering resentment towards the paper that falsely accused Liverpool fans of carrying out terrible acts as the disaster unfolded.

As part of an hour long interview with Burnham on FUBAR Radio, to be aired on Tuesday from 10am, I asked him whether the failure at the last election of his friend and potential predecessor Ed Milliband was due in part to his unhealthy relationship with the Mail and the Sun – who monstered him on an almost daily basis in run-up to Polling Day. Burnham didn’t seem, explicitly at least, to acknowledge it.

As a former tabloid journalist myself, and one who remains heavily involved in that world, I told him in no uncertain terms that staying on the right side of the Sun is crucial if you are to have any chance of political success. He may not say it out loud, but Burnham knows it too. 

Which is why it must be all the more concerning for him that, not only is the Sun not on his side, it is actively attacking him after he turned down an interview request. Last week it took pot-shot after pot-shot, even holding up Burnham’s travel expenses as an example of how he was a ‘tightwad’.

Of all the questions I asked in wide-ranging interview that covered the leadership race and his plans should he win, the Iraq War (“my biggest regret in politics”) and his devotion to Everton (“I will never miss a match – even if I am Prime Minister”), The Sun highlighted his failure to identify which soap legend had their funeral this week, as a knock to his ‘man of the people’ record.

I don’t think him not watching Corrie reveals an awful lot – Burnham may of course be an EastEnders man. But what the Sun’s reaction to him not knowing about Deidre does show, as he aims to win the Labour leadership race, and then become Prime Minster, is that his principles and relationship with the press could be his downfall. Let’s not forget that Tony Blair – who for years played the Sun brilliantly– campaigned to Free the Weatherfield One, when Deirdre was behind bars back in 1998.
Many of the bereaved Hillsborough families, and probably the friends Burnham is proud to say he still regularly drinks with back home on Merseyside, would happily see ‘The Scum’ consigned to history like its sister paper the News of the World, and its owner Rupert Murdoch damned to hell for eternity.    

And that leaves Burnham in a rather sticky situation. Because he cannot escape the brutal truth that, if he wants to win back the many thousands of its former voters who abandoned Labour in favour of Ukip in May, he will inevitably need some support from the Sun.
On air Burnham puts a brave face on his recent treatment at the hands of the redtop, making conciliatory noises about the importance of “talking to everyone” while at the same time not doing anything to upset the families of the JFT96 campaign while the inquiry is on-going.

But in private, as we talked before about the tough week he had faced, it is clear he has been stung by the coverage and seems conflicted. Until Labour finally elects its next leader in September, the Sun’s knocking coverage is probably not too big a problem for Burnham. But if he does win the leadership race, it is a conflict he will somehow need to overcome.

 It’s questionable whether it's “The Sun Wot Won It”, as the paper has a history of backing the winning horse. And it is of course possible to succeed in the face of opposition in the press.

But unless Burnham can navigate an acceptable compromise with the Hillsborough families he is deeply loyal to and the Sun, his messages about championing the NHS and delivering a fairer austerity plan may never get a fair hearing in Britain’s biggest newspaper.

 

Tom Latchem is a journalist and broadcaster who presents the Tuesday morning show on FUBAR Radio. Listen to the interview on the station on Tuesday from 10am.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue