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Tory fiction, media fact

A right-wing echo chamber of columnists, bloggers and think tanks uncritically supports Conservative

Is there a right-wing echo chamber in this country? How else to describe the loyal army of columnists, bloggers and think tanks that regularly lines up behind the Conservative Party, parroting uncritically the policies and pronouncements of HM Opposition?

Originating in the United States, the "echo chamber effect" relies on the constant and unquestioning repetition of a given view through as many media channels as possible, giving the (false) impression of a consensus and denouncing alternative sources of news and opinion as biased or untrustworthy. "This process," says the US-based Centre for Media and Democracy, "can be used to turn an unsupported allegation or a partisan talking point into an ‘accepted fact'."

It is, therefore, now an "accepted fact" that Britain has a "debt crisis", though the level of national debt (as a proportion of GDP) is lower than that of Italy, Germany, France, Japan or the United States. It is now an "accepted fact" that spending cuts have to be made immediately, though Nobel Prize-winning economists, and our own Danny Blanchflower (page 19), point out that slashing spending in the midst of a recession is the height of economic illiteracy. It is now an "accepted fact" that the Prime Minister lacks integrity - indeed, the Tory leadership is obsessed with what David Cameron has described as a "thread of dishonesty" running through Gordon Brown's premiership.

Co-ordinated smears

On 16 September, George Osborne, shadow chancellor, declared that Brown "has misled the public, he has misled the Commons; he was not telling the truth". That Osborne himself may have been deceiving the public with his conspiratorial claims of an "income-tax bombshell", based on "secret documents" that turned out to be not so secret and an analysis of public finances that has since been challenged by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is conveniently ignored in the drive to peddle the "Brown is a liar" narrative at every turn.

Benedict Brogan, the Telegraph's chief political commentator, used the outrageous absence of outrage at Osborne's hysterical remarks to argue that "if there is no reaction, it is because we have collectively come to the same view, that the Prime Minister cannot be trusted to tell us the truth". Sorry, but was I out of the country the day Brogan was elected spokesman for the nation? The only group that has "collectively" come to that conclusion is a right-wing spin machine. Nakedly partisan commentators such as Brogan (who recently rhapsodised that "if we have avoided the national humiliation of being dropped into the banana league category, it's thanks to them [Cameron and Osborne]") are a fixture of that machine.

But partisanship, it seems, is the exclusive preserve of the left. My colleague James Macintyre, whose reporting on the Conservatives' strange new alliances in the European Parliament has discomfited the party high command, is routinely accused by Tory bloggers of being a Labour spinner or some kind of entryist at the New Statesman. I can reveal that the smears have been co-ordinated at the highest level, one Conservative Central Office (CCO) press officer even writing to a prominent blogger on the right who had refused to join the witch-hunt: "I would also argue with you calling a journalist [Macintyre] 'excellent' who was implicated in the Damian McBride story."

Macintyre had nothing to do with the McBride affair and is on the record condemning the latter's "ugly personal smear stories". So what source did the CCO spin doctor provide for his false, libellous and potentially career-damaging accusation? A solitary link to an unfounded story on a gossipy right-wing blog.

It is becoming clear that great effort is being made to discredit the handful of journalists who have broad sympathies with Labour or the centre left and to accuse them of being in hock to the government. Tory-supporting journalists, bloggers and think tanks, meanwhile, often purport to be impartial and dispassionate.

The reaction to Fraser Nelson's appointment as editor of the Spectator is a case in point. Nelson is a partisan right-winger. Yet Tory bloggers such as ConservativeHome's Tim Montgom­erie were quick to extol his independence. "With a few exceptions . . . Matthew d'Ancona [Nelson's predecessor as editor of the Spectator] has pursued a friendly relationship with the Conservative Party. My guess is that will change somewhat under Fraser Nelson."

Really? In a diary column for the magazine, Nelson bragged that he had received congratulatory texts from Cameron and Osborne ("yet nothing at all", he said, "from No 10").

All hail the cult

High-profile think tanks such as Policy Exchange and the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA) are quoted uncritically on the BBC, despite their numerous links to the Tories (the past two directors of Policy Exchange have gone on to work for David Cameron and Boris Johnson; the current director of the TPA is a former Conservative Party researcher). As a result, they skew the debate on public spending and other issues to the right.

The echo effect is so pervasive that I can think of only two prominent Tory commentators who have remained immune to the cult of Cameron - the Telegraph's Simon Heffer and the Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens. On the other side of the ideological divide, as even ConservativeHome's Montgomerie acknowledges, "only the Mirror is sure to endorse Lab­our" at the next election. It is no wonder Labour ministers, struggling to make their voices heard above the noise of the right-wing echo chamber, have begun referring to themselves as "underdogs", with Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, advising them to act like "insurgents, not incumbents". In media terms, there is no doubt that the coming election will pit a Labour David against a Tory Goliath.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman. Next week: John Pilger.

Read Mehdi Hasan's blog

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter