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21 August 2000

Why Posh’s bunions will be news

Westminster - Mark Seddon

By Mark Seddon

As a curtain-raiser to the summer silly season, it took some beating. The Commons had just risen for recess. As the minister began to pack his bags, the telephone rang. A cub reporter from the Sunday Times “just wanted to know” where the minister would be spending his holiday, for the benefit of one of those “regular surveys we do”. By the time the ministerial suntan lotion was in the bag, it was the turn of a hotshot from the Sun. “Where are you going and who are you going with?” demanded the pip-squeak. Now that thoughtful profiles or exacting interviews are out – even in the broadsheets – this is as good as it gets for most politicians. The march of what the former Independent writer Peter Dunn describes as the “trivial, gormless, cheap and – above all – lazy” genre of journalism has overrun most of what was once Fleet Street. So why do we insist on referring to the “silly season” when the rest of the year is now even sillier?

The descent of many of the broadsheets into the dumbed-down world of celebrity, infotainment and politics as docu-soap is depressing. In recent years, with a few honourable exceptions – the Independent and Daily Telegraph spring to mind – there has been a major retreat from hard-headed news-gathering and in-depth com-ment. As far as this government’s relationship with the press is concerned, political coverage has gone from the fawningly obsequious to dismal soap opera. Increasingly, the discerning reader wearies of oversold padding that claims to reveal the football proclivities of bit-playing spin-doctors and other, assorted nonentities.

Here are a few political stories from this very silly summer that somehow avoided making it into most of our newspapers. So obsessed are editors with the Blairs’ vulgar holiday arrangements, or with the need to secure pictures of the frighteningly normal-looking baby Leo, that truly newsworthy stories were deemed, er, not newsworthy at all. Doubtless, New Statesman readers could produce their own lists of those stories – demonstrations, campaigns, what happens outside central London – that go unreported.

In July, with the Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet in attendance, the Labour Party drew up its pre-election manifesto at a national policy forum in Exeter. The meeting was held in secret – although, once upon a time, “secret” meetings attracted the inquisitive. During that weekend, a tremendous row broke out over pensions – or Gordon Brown’s miserly decision to increase the weekly pension by 75p a week. A shaken Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, was obliged to retreat. Elsewhere, old-fashioned arm-twisting be-tween ministers and the unions led to a monstrous argument among the trade unions, with the smaller unions rightly accusing the bigger ones of breaking TUC policy on privatisation and trade union recognition. But aside from the lonely figures of the BBC’s Nick Jones and the Observer‘s Martin Bright, no member of the press corps turned up.

It has been said that this government has been hoist with its own petard by offering devolution with one hand while, with the other, clawing it back by blocking and gerrymandering the new potentates. So you would think that, when Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee met to bury control-freakery and restore “one member, one vote” in all future Labour selections, this would make news. However, despite the meeting being held in Millbank, barely a few yards from the studios of every major British television company and the massed ranks of the parliamentary press corps, no journalist, with the exception of the dogged Nick Jones, reported it. Perhaps it would not be politic to mention the one-day conference organised by the Labour left, which boasted contributions from a broad range of delightfully off-message MPs and former ministers – except to report that two hacks from the Sunday Times did turn up, but their recording machines broke down. The usual media blackout followed.

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For other matters ignored, you need only think back a week or so. The House of Commons library released figures to the Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb that reveal an extra 400,000 pensioners living in poverty since new Labour was elected. The total of poor pensioners now stands at 2.4 million, while the number of children living below the poverty line has remained exactly the same at 3.4 million. “The Department of Social Security,” reported BBC News Online, somewhat out on a limb in the media desert, “has accepted the validity of these figures.” And yet, barely a murmur is heard from most of the broadsheets, whose listless attention had yet again been diverted by the banal antics of the utterly charmless bunch on the Big Brother set.

The irony is that many editors believe that the public is as uninterested as they are. The other irony is that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, who complain about “froth”, encourage it in the first place. You cannot banish the free debate of ideas and reduce MPs to an army of on-message automatons, then wonder why the silly season now embraces the whole year. A crude populism that incites damaged people is launched – such as Rebekah Wade’s abominable anti- paedophile campaign – replacing ideology and reinforcing the impression of a dangerous vacuum.

So here, in the hope that we can begin to get serious again, I offer the following:

Labour will win the next election. Voter turnout will be the lowest since the end of the Second World War. Shortly afterwards, Tony Blair, at the insistence of Cherie, will depart for a senior job (and loads more money) in Europe. Gordon Brown and Sarah Macaulay will forgo having a baby, because Gordon will be too busy being Prime Minister.

Most newspaper editors will be pre-occupied with Posh Spice’s bunions.

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