The media column - Peter Wilby

The <em>Times</em> particularly favours writers who claim to be left-wing but hold no discernible le

Tony Blair's troubles get worse. The Blairite apologist Stephen Pollard has joined the deserters. Pollard is one of those mysterious commentators - Oliver Kamm is another - who claim to be left-wing but hold no discernible left-wing views. Such writers are particularly favoured by the Times, presumably because they allow Rupert Murdoch to have his cake and eat it: he stays onside with the party in power by giving space to its alleged supporters, but keeps his papers ideologically on the right.

Pollard has long hailed Blair as the ideal Labour leader because he favours wealth creation and competition. That may sound like a Tory to you and me, but let it pass. He and Kamm both voted Labour in last year's election because they saw it as "a referendum on the veracity, judgement and ethics of the Prime Minister".

Pollard used to be an NS contributor. Then we ran a cover headed "Dictator of Downing Street", with a picture of Blair made up to look like Stalin. It was to illustrate a piece by the Oxford historian Robert Service, who drew a parallel between the PM's governing style and that of the Soviet dictator, though obviously not between the numbers they had murdered. Pollard said that, after this disgusting calumny, he would never darken our pages again. I (then editor) replied that I was sorry he had become so pompous. A few years earlier, he had used the first letter of each paragraph in his final Express column to spell out a rude message to the paper's proprietor, Richard Desmond. He was due to join the Times staff as a leader writer but this was considered inappropriate conduct for such an august position, and Pollard had to resign before he started.

Now this admirable mischief-maker was denouncing my mischief. Yet his latest piece, in last Monday's Daily Mail, compared Blair to Richard Nixon - not Stalin, admittedly, but bad enough. The cash-for-honours affair is unfolding rather as Watergate did, he argued: trivial misdemeanours by people of slight importance lead to a scandal that engulfs the top man. Blair, wrote Pollard, was "up to his neck" in it, and held "the country in contempt". It is as if Eva Braun had deserted Hitler (just kidding, Stephen).

The Prime Minister has some crumbs of comfort, however. After a brief wobble, his hagiographer John Rentoul, of the Independent on Sunday, is back onside. The honours business is just a "media hoopla" he informs us, and Blair's main problem is "to hold off the growing weight of our abiding culture of cynicism". More importantly, Irwin Stelzer (aka Rupert Murdoch thinking aloud) seems to have hardened on his doubts about Gordon Brown. The Chancellor's latest Budget showed that he will use "any conceivable excuse to expand the reach of government", Stelzer wrote in the Guardian on Tuesday. Blair had "an obligation" to stay, he argued. Moreover, the Murdoch court clearly hasn't given up hope that a credible new Labour alternative to Brown will emerge or that David Cameron will (as those who disapprove of such youthful frivolities as saving the planet put it) mature. Either could happen, Stelzer suggested, if Blair stays long enough.

I shall not quarrel with the Euston Manifesto, launched in the NS last week. Its list of supporters, combining the passion of Nick Cohen with the intellect of John Lloyd and the wit of Francis Wheen, is enough to daunt any criticism. They seem to say it was OK for me to be against the Iraq war - though I shouldn't, apparently, go on about it - so I may even sign up.

But I am fascinated by their belief that their views are "significantly under-represented in the mainstream media" and, indeed, "at dinner tables". As I don't get out much these days, I can't speak for the dinner tables, though I am surprised that, even in Islington, these should require BBC-style political balance. On the media, however, it seems odd for people who have columns almost everywhere (Cohen, Wheen and Lloyd all appear regularly in the London Evening Standard, as well as elsewhere) to complain they feel "isolated".

The claim of unfair media treatment is a comfort blanket. The American right argues that the media in the US are dominated by "liberals"; the American left that they are full of White House lackeys. No British government I can remember thought the BBC gave it a fair hearing. New Labour insists it has no true supporters in the national press. James Delingpole, of the Telegraph/Spectator stable, has made a cottage industry out of claiming he hardly dare reveal his "unfashionable" right-wing views. My fellow NS columnist John Pilger swears the media suppress news of western atrocities and marginalise views like his; I have written in his support.

I still think Pilger has the better case. But we are all a bit like footballers griping about biased referees. Shouldn't we drop it, and just get on with the arguments?

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real first casualty of war