Robbie Low on the State and the state of the Fourth Estate
For most of my adult life I have been a keen student of newspapers. ‘Get a life’, I hear you cry. The habit was developed some thirty years ago when my work centred on Parliament and I was expected to have read, assessed, noted and clipped anything relevant to our work from five or six daily papers before arriving at the office. Ever since I have always ensured that, once or twice a week, I read a paper other than the one delivered to my home, always know what the other headlines are and take any opportunity to glance through stray unfamiliar copies in cafes, barbers, other people’s homes etc.etc. This, I accept, is the testament of a very sad person but it does give me a nose for what is going on.
Curiously enough, even in a television age, the power of the press remains substantial and, because the written word, however crudely put, is essentially reflective rather than transient, it retains a disproportionate authority. What is written in the paper provides the instant stuff of daily conversation from the tea hut on the building site to the boardroom in the city. One may bandy the simple slogans of the tabloid, the other may interpolate the no less craftily prejudiced musings of broadsheet scribblers. The effect is the same – political, financial, moral influence. Knowledge is power and its use and abuse, publication or retention are highly significant.
No-one has been more acutely aware of this than the present Government. That they are in an uniquely commanding position to control the flow of information through a now highly politicised Civil Service is possible because of their election in 1997 and the subsequent atrophying of Parliament. That they were elected in 1997 is due, in no small measure, to a radical realignment in Fleet Street.
Tony Blair was among those bitterly disappointed by the defeat in 1992. What had seemed a certain victory, to such an extent that Labour held a pre-election victory party in Sheffield, turned to ashes on polling day as the discredited Major Government was returned to widespread astonishment. (In the event it turned out to be a disaster for the Tories and salvation for Labour but no-one could have foreseen that.) Blair recognised, along with most other ‘savvy’ commentators that, as the newspaper itself proudly trumpeted, ‘IT WAS THE SUN WOT WON IT’.
On the eve of the election the Sun gave over its front page to a picture of Neil Kinnock with legend, ‘Would the last person to leave the country turn out the lights’.
In one brutally cruel propaganda image the Murdoch press destroyed the cosy repackaging of old Labour and reignited the fears of 1979 chaos among its 4 million readers and anyone who saw the newsstand.
Tony Blair’s single most important coup in the years before 1997 therefore was to convince Murdoch that New Labour were no longer socialists but merely enthusiastic capitalists with a social conscience. It is a deal that still holds today and has dramatically shifted the media balance of power. Twelve years ago only the Mirror and the Guardian were guaranteed Labour and even the Guardian had its Liberal moments. By 2001 only the Telegraph and the Mail were reliably Conservative and parts of the Telegraph were decidedly limp. No economic conservative can complain about this reverse of fortune occasioned by market forces. (Conservatives would be on much firmer ground in attacking the supposedly neutral, compulsorily funded BBC which has conducted a relentless twenty five year campaign of marginalisation and vilification against economic, political, religious and moral conservatism). The fact remains that the effect of the press, while not always finally determinative, remains massive. And, in many cases , what it omits is as important as the content. Take the recent very public morality story that has gripped the nation – the Blunkett saga or ‘Bonkety Blunk’ as the Sun so memorably dubbed it.
Roger and out
For the innocent among you I should explain a few basics. All decent political journalists know who is sleeping with whom and, often, when and where. Adultery is sadly no more unusual in the House of Commons than any other British workplace. The story only makes the papers if 1) the injured party does a ‘kiss and tell’ 2) one political faction thinks it can sink a rival without retaliation (this is rare and risky) 3) the proprietor or editor is gunning for someone 4) blatant hypocrisy e.g. preaching family values while rogering the 19 year old research assistant. Stay clear of these and you’re O.K. (A senior Cabinet minister in my time always sported his mistress at social events and no-one ever said a word.) The ‘truce’ broke down in the run up to the ’97 election and baffled Tories found themselves under extraordinary scrutiny as the Murdoch press nailed a number for ‘indiscretions’ complete with photos. A moment’s intelligent reflection would have left the reader puzzled as to the absence of Labour sinners but the damage was done. It enabled Mr Blair to promise sleaze free government while the Tories retreated besmirched and enmired.
If it sounds a cynical game, I suppose at one level it is. But now the wheel has come full circle the moral parameters seem to have shifted and with serious consequences for us all. You see I have been deeply concerned about David Blunkett for the last three years or so. I knew nothing about Kimberley Fortier/Quinn but I kept saying to my wife (your Editor), ‘There’s something odd about this.’ Let me explain. There was nothing odd about the treatment of Mr Blunkett in the majority of the newspapers who are pro-government, pro Blair. ‘Blind Dave’ is a stalwart Blair fan and a bulwark against the dismal Jimmy who broods in No 11. So far so good.
The clue was the remnant Tory Press where ‘Saint’ Dave was, if anything, more lauded than among his own. Now it may be that he’s just an awfully nice chap but politics seldom works like that. The case wouldn’t stand up. With the Tories desperate for a target, Blunkett seemed, inexplicably, to be off limits. As someone who tries to think politically and strategically I was mystified. Here was a hard left Sheffield Council leader (the Sheffield Soviet as it was unkindly but not inaccurately known) transformed into a Blairite. His time at Education had been a disaster. Promising to resign if targets weren’t met, he moved to the Home Office just in time for his successor to inherit the abject failure and the collapse of the exam system. She resigned. Blunk then presided over rising crime and the gerrymandering and collapse of the immigration system. He regularly attempted to correct the independent judiciary and set in train massive state inroads into civil liberties and was set fair to become the most repressive Home Secretary in living memory. Why on earth did the Tory press not savage him instead of treating him like an old pal? The answer, my friends, has been all over your newspapers in the last few weeks. For the last three years the Home Secretary had been sleeping with a woman who employed many of the scribblers. The Spectator, which recent events have revealed to be more of a ‘knocking shop’ than a magazine, was under the patronage of Mrs Quinn. Blunkett was a personal friend of too many powerful people. No doubt if he hadn’t broken cover, in the desperate fall out of a failed affair, the story would still be under wraps. It isn’t and the whole sordid surroundings provide a telling morality tale of our times.
Horns of dilemma
The basic facts must be known to everyone. The Home Secretary begins an affair with a newly married woman, cuckolds her husband who is trying to have a reverse vasectomy and father children, and, Dave claims, sires her two children whom she brings up as her husbands but takes on holiday with her lover. Enough, you might think, to make most honourable men consider their position and resign. Not our Dave. He pursues his former lover into the maternity suite, DNA test kit in hand, jeopardising the pregnancy of his, he claims, second baby. When rebuked he goes to law claiming, ‘The law is on my side. I know, I made it.’ The judge, surprisingly, agrees with the man responsible for law and order in this country.
I don’t know about you but I don’t recall David Blunkett declaring an interest when he ‘made’ this law. Worse, I am alarmed that a Home Secretary should describe the law of the land as a personal weapon against a private citizen who has offended him. That way tyranny lies.
Still no resignation.
We are then made aware of his misuse of ministerial travel arrangements for his mistress, his use of civil servants in his private affairs and his waste of police time. (The latter in scrambling officers to pursue two little boys who had the temerity to ring his lover’s door bell and run away. The pursuit went to the ludicrous lengths of investigating the local junior school for the culprits.) Latterly there has been the visa for the nanny miraculously granted in nineteen days after the threat of a twelve month delay. The Home Secretary asked his civil servants to check it for him personally and then claimed he expected no action. (The Budd Inquiry was due to answer for that though recent government inquiries have consistently revealed that damning evidence is no justification for conviction). The media continued to parade an endless succession of ministers, friends, hacks, Tories, even clergymen telling us what a great bloke Dave was, how fond everyone was of him and how he should keep his job. (Volunteers for this particular task began to thin out when it became clear, via his biography, that his opinion of his colleagues was that most of them couldn’t organise an orgy in a brothel.)
There is more but it is similar (abuse of position) and similarly sordid (previous affair with another man’s partner). Into the midst of all this came the Prime Minister to pontificate as only he can. Overturning the principle of his opposition years when Tory sleaze was a legitimate target, though small beer to this, he pronounced no connection between private life and public affairs. It may be a matter of convenience for the Prime Minister to adopt situation ethics but it is, I would argue, in Sheridan’s phrase, ‘the lie direct’.
Anyone who has any experience of the pastoral care of the adulterer knows that the necessary deceit and dishonesty corrupts and corrodes every aspect of life and judgement. It is neither possible nor, thank God, human to compartmentalise in this unnatural way. Who we are is indivisible. As long as we are impenitent about our sin we are doomed to compound it. Justifying our wickednesses inevitably leads to further outrages, often considerably outstripping the original offence. Conviction of our own rectitude merely deepens the poison. Worse still, those around us are often sucked into the atmosphere, catch the virus and begin to dissemble for us for no better reason than that their fondness outstrips their judgement.
Blunkett is a classic case. Far from affirming the fantastic theory of private and public separation, there is not an aspect of Blunkett’s life that has not been deeply influenced for the worse and, in some cases, terminally undermined by his addiction to the affair. There is not an aspect of his public authority that has not been weakened by his dishonourable behaviour. The very heart of the law that should be our guarantee of freedom has been compromised by the confusion of his private needs and his public duty.
And then, suddenly, the long drawn out agony was over. The ‘smoking gun’ in the form of emails and a fax destroyed Blunkett’s defence on the nanny’s visa. Private life and public affairs had met in his office. To employ public office for private benefit used to be called corruption but not anymore apparently. Blunkett’s reaction was that of a truly modern politician. He had done nothing wrong. He had a reputation for honesty. He was making a sacrifice for the good of the Government etc. etc.
More alarming was the media reaction. The BBC went into full mourning with the faithful Blairite front man Andrew Marr, in counselling mode, asking a tearful Blunkett if he felt ‘abused’. Most of that evening’s broadcasting had to be accompanied by a brown paper bag. The following morning’s papers were no better. ‘Destroyed by the woman he loved’, ‘The man who loved too much’, ‘A simple man seduced by scoundrels’ to quote but a few. Page after page of outrageous sentiment and flagrant dishonesty, one might have been forgiven for thinking Blunkett had been assassinated.
It is possible to feel sad for any man in such a dilemma but it is not possible to exonerate him. Up until the last three weeks he, after all, has been the driving force behind his own ruin. In his resignation and in the attitude of the Prime Minister there was the awful sense of Mandelsonian déjà vu. Blunkett reinstated after the next election? Don’t rule it out.
But that is the politics of it. The spirituality of it is much more significant and much more alarming. Both press and parliament have now demonstrated that in a ‘non-judgemental society’, there is no longer any real grasp of right and wrong. Morality is simply not on the modern menu. As disturbing for our constitutional freedom is the failure to understand the limits of official authority. There is also a desperate confusion about the role of friendship. David Blunkett is a popular chap with a large number of publicly accountable friends. Sadly, it seems, no-one loved him enough to tell him the truth. He is a sinner. He needs to acknowledge he was wrong and repent. He needs to say sorry to those he has really hurt (not just the Cabinet egos), humbly resign his post and start to put his life in order. Then, and only then, I would argue could he become again, if ever, a considerable candidate for public office.
As it stands we have all been treated to an unedifying circus of deceit capped by the Prime Minister’s implausible epitaph for the Home Secretary. He leaves, Mr Blair insisted, ‘with his integrity intact’. As my much lamented old friend from the East End, Sr Grace Rudman CA, used to say, ‘When people start talking about integrity, it’s time to count the teaspoons’.
Robbie Low lives in Cornwall