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Labour, the Tabloids and the Contamination of Government

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Labour has grasped the nettle and stood up to the Murdoch press. They have done so fearlessly, if tentatively at first, and even named James Murdoch as having authorised a cover-up of the hacking scandal. The fact that this was done under Parliamentary privilege surely doesn't detract from the bravery of such paragons of virtue as Tom Watson, whilst his old master sits back and blames his civil servants.

The Labour narrative is that Cameron's act in appointing Andy Coulson was just the most egregious example of the Conservative Party's lack of judgment - and worse - in its dealings with the Murdoch empire; and that it demonstrates the inability of the Government to act as a fair arbiter in determining News International's application to obtain a majority interest in BSkyB. That this narrative is propounded so unstintingly may not be surprising in an Opposition; but it should not blind us to the background of Labour's relationship, not just with Murdoch but with the tabloid press in general.

Tony Blair appointed Alastair Campbell before his election in 1997 with a specific remit to revolutionise Labour's relationship with the press. What ensued was not directly corrupt, but it emphatically influenced Labour's entire approach to politics. Sometimes it was merely a question of presentation. We might forgive Tony Blair's tribute to a fictitious dead character on Eastenders, or even his mawkish speech after Diana's death. But this association with the tabloid press was deeper and more insidious. Campbell's unprecedented attendance at cabinet meetings and, more importantly, at the meetings preceding cabinet, had a direct and dangerous effect not merely on government policy but upon the manner in which democratic debate was conducted. It was notable how often, both in the House and in the television studios so beloved of the Blair administration, that difficult, complex and important questions of policy were reduced to attacking the motives of those arguing against the populist roar of the tabloids.

Perhaps the worst example of this - and one that demonstrates most clearly the effect of Blair and Campbell's tabloid policy - was the Labour Government's home affairs policy.
Labour has a proud history of standing up for civil liberties, however unpopular that may be. Neil Kinnock and John Smith consistently refused to back the annual extension of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1991 and its predecessors, which allowed executive detention in extreme circumstances in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is deeply ironic to read Kevin McNamara's speech in 1994 attacking the principle of executive detention in the light of the Blair and Brown administrations' attempts to introduce detention without trial of up to ninety days. Chris Mullen's long and often thankless campaign against the injustice of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four detentions was laudable. This was, after all, the Party that abolished the death penalty.

Yet, watching Labour Home Secretaries in the 1990s and 2000s, you would think they were from a different world. It wasn't just that their policies changed. There were good arguments against McNamara's opposition to executive detention in the years of unremitting terrorism in Northern Ireland (which, let us not forget, cost more lives each year than even the 7/7 enormity) and there were respectable cases for introducing a DNA database and reforming the laws of criminal evidence. Those were not the cases put forward. Instead, we saw the government embrace a series of emotional and mawkish tabloid campaigns that used victims of crime as a Trojan Horse to encourage and promote a government agenda more hostile to common law rights than any throughout the twentieth century.

Rebecca Wade herself demonstrated the dangerous nature of the misuse of tabloid power with her 2001 campaign to name paedophiles, which led directly to mob violence and attacks on those the press called 'innocent' (as though it would be quite justifiable to attack guilty men without recourse to due process). But it continued throughout the last decade and could be seen, yet again, in last month's disgusting attacks on Levi Bellfield's counsel for doing his job cross-examining witnesses and putting his client's case (a campaign brilliantly exposed in the blog 'Beneath the Wig').

These campaigns directly influenced government policy. The appointment of the foul mouthed quango queen Louise Casey as Victims' Commissioner, one of the last acts of the Brown Government, was the culmination of a joint government and tabloid campaign that used victims of crime as a weapon to damage the common law rights of defendants.

One of the worst examples of the nature of these tabloid campaigns was the Brown Government's reaction to a House of Lords judicial decision refusing to allow witnesses to give evidence anonymously. The government reaction showed the danger of allowing understandable sympathy for victims of crime to influence decisions at the expense of cool headed judgment that takes proper accounts of the need for due process; something representative democracy is supposed to provide in a government of laws. Legislation was passed within days with no opportunity for proper scrutiny. The tabloid outrage was such that no major political party held the government to account for the enormously dangerous step of allowing anonymous witnesses - witnesses whom the defence could not hope to scrutinise without even being allowed to know their connection to the defendant (as I have written elsewhere). Yet those basic rights count for nothing when a government wallows in the mire of its tabloid bedfellows.

This is but one, perhaps not the most egregious, example of the effect of tabloid campaigns on government, but it demonstrates well the use by both tabloids and government of emotive arguments to propagate policy and undermine those who dare stand against them. Almost as damaging to political discourse has been the tactic used by Labour Home Secretaries, in particular, to fail to engage with argument but merely attack their opponents. Blair, too, was particularly adept at tabloid friendly jibes whenever anyone dared question his policies on most subjects. Engaging, arguing and persuading were replaced by personal attack, aunt sallies and populist jibes.

Truly, this relationship has damaged our governance. It has infected every Party and made it ever more difficult to make complex but essential arguments on behalf of those unable to defend themselves against the mob. The tabloid press, its campaigns, its lack of ethics, its use of emotive rhetoric to advance its causes and its influence on government has changed our democracy for the worse. It is the responsibility of all political Parties, not just the government of the day, to turn their back on cheap tabloid headlines and act, for once, in the public interest.