Tuesday, 16 October 2007

It was the Press wot’ done it

Last night, as Simon Hughes and Vince Cable finished their announcement to the press on the doorsteps of the Liberal Democrats Cowley Street headquarters, a voice from amongst the serried ranks of journalists cried out “Who wielded the dagger?” For the answer to that question, the press might be better looking closer to home.

Sir Menzies Campbell has been dogged by a hostile press since his election to lead the party just 18 months ago. He had had an inauspicious start: the Conservatives had just elected their new leader only weeks before the Lib Dems only leadership crisis, in a competition that at the time was seen as very good for the Tories; the nature of Charles Kennedy’s departure left a bitter taste in the mouths of many voters and party activists (though not as bitter as the gin that was his downfall); and Ming’s early performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were not great.

Yet the story was far from simple. Within months of being elected leader, the Lib Dems scored to a brilliant by-election result in Bromley & Chislehurst: just 650 more votes and the future of both Sir Menzies and the Liberal Democrats might have been very different. The story at PMQs was far from one-sided and by all accounts he had been getting better. And his conference speech in Brighton last month was the best of his career.
And therein lies the truth of his demise. For all that success, the press were simply not interested. It was as if they did not want to hear that Sir Menzies, at 66 years of age, leading a Liberal Democratic Party, might actually have good, important points to make that the British people might want to hear. I thought it was an excellent speech, and so did many of my colleagues. But it had precisely no impact upon the media whatsoever.

For the press, the story had already been written: Ming was too old; the Young Turks were waiting in the wing’s; the Lib Dems were being squeezed (media-speak for our policies being stolen by the other parties); and if we did not dump our leaders soon we would crash to a defeat that would be worse than anything since the SDP merged with the Liberals in 1988. Forget the fact that in both this Summer’s parliamentary by-elections we came second and pushed “David Cameron’s Conservatives” into third place; or the fact that in the previous 15 council by-elections, we gained two seats and the Tories lost one, while Labour merely held their ground; or the fact that in my recent Council election, for example, we polled more votes than Labour and the Conservatives combined. For the press, the story was already written, because they had written it.

Now, the hypocrisy is in full swing. The media are variously saying that Sir Menzies was a nice chap but just overwhelmed by the negative press he’d received (from whom?); that he was getting better at his job but that the public were not listening (because the media weren’t conveying the message); and that he was assassinated (which, if true, may have been because every MP at every interview was asked when Ming would go).

If this dark episode has any silver lining, it is that the Lib Dems can look forward to some heightened media attention as Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne battle it out for the leadership (with, presumably, some others in the sidelines). However, it is unlikely that – when the dust settles – the press are going to be willing to give us the continuing coverage that we deserve, as a party that received a quarter of the votes in the last general election. Our future, with or without Sir Menzies, will be a tough battle in the face of a hostile media. Time to start writing those Focuses.


Anonymous said...

The press have a long history of telling us what to do - then we fools listen and do it and believe we will get better coverage for it - then they kick us for doing it.

THINK Liberal Democrats about this before opting for Nick Clegg. The favourite of the press today. Tomorrow? Another smug git from a posh school in a suit, why vote for him when you have Cameron?

Neil Reddin said...

"why vote for him when you have Cameron?"

Couldn't agree more :-)

Tom Papworth said...

"why vote for him when you have Cameron?"

Because Nick is not a vacuous spin-merchant who wants to be the heir to Blair.

And if you're so fond of Cameron, Neil, you must be the only member of Bromley Council who is! Your Tory colleagues spend most of their time slagging him off.

Anonymous said...

"Another smug git from a posh school in a suit"

I'm sure that's what will be said no matter whether you'll choose Clegg or Huhne.