The Sun

The Second Leaders’ Debate

Last night Bristol hosted the second televised Leaders’ Debate of the 2010 General Election. The event was staged by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News but, unlike ITV, NewsCorp did allow the live footage to be streamed to the BBC News Channel. However, interest seems to have dipped as early indications suggest that combined viewing figures were in the region of 4 million (compared with figures of 9.9 million for the previous week).

Indeed, there did seem to be less of an edge to last night’s event, as if the novelty of seeing our party leaders debating on television had already worn off. Perhaps there will be a raising of expectations for the third, and final, debate on the BBC next week as the choices become starker and the stakes become higher.

Clegg maintained the standard he set in the first debate at Manchester. Considering the tone of yesterday’s media coverage (in particular the Telegraph, Sun and Mail) and the weight that the level of Tory press smearing must have put on his shoulders, he showed real strength to top all but one of the post debate polls. I can only imagine the pressure that must have been on Clegg to perform to the same level as last time, but perform he did. He stuck to the same tactic of directly addressing the viewing public, seemed relaxed, and his answers were clear and to the point. Perhaps his main triumph was to look more human than Brown and less condescending than Cameron.

Both Brown and Cameron tried to play the “look at those two” card that Clegg carried off so well the previous week, but when they did it it looked like a focus-grouped tactic that each had suddenly remembered to deploy. Clegg does it naturally because the Lib Dems truly are the outsiders in Westminster politics.

Cameron certainly improved on the workmanlike performance he put in in Manchester, but Tory talk in the run-up to the debate of him “pulling a rabbit out of the hat” still looked wildly optimistic. Of course, the Tory press (still in denial over its total lack of influence over this election) has tried to spin their man to victory in the morning papers but the truth is that Cameron is still having nowhere near the impact on the campaign that had been predicted by just about everybody. Perhaps, in the heat of the campaign, people have started to see through the personality cult and the Blairesque spin. Indeed this is backed up by ICM’s poll straight after the debate which found that 47% believed Cameron was more spin than substance compared to 28% for Brown and just 19% for Clegg. The Tory leader has one last televised debate to find that rabbit.

Considering he is still – for two more weeks at least – the Prime Minister, it’s surprising just how quickly Gordon Brown has become the forgotten man of the debates. You could argue this works in his favour as he likes to paint himself as a man who simply gets on with the real job, a man who has no time for the flashy superficiality of Cameron, but in truth the Brown Premiership is dying a slow death before our eyes. Here he was plodding and over-technical, and his occasional attempts at humour looked desperately over-rehearsed. Perhaps the most damning thing I could say about any Prime Minister is that I feel sorry for him, but this is indeed the case now for Brown.

Adam Boulton was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night. Right from the start he appeared to be more nervous than any of the party leaders, and he did seem to develop a knack of talking over all three for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate the ‘silent audience’ rule which governs the debate. I think it would be unedifying in the extreme to have the leaders heckled by party stooges. At least this way we are free to make up our own minds.

And so we look to the Midlands for next week’s BBC debate. Clegg will look to maintain his level of performance whereas Cameron has a final chance to put in the performance everyone has expected. Brown, it seems, will simply be glad it’s all over.

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Will Rupert Murdoch be locked out of British politics?

“In so many ways, a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote against Murdoch and the media elite.”

Amid all the media hysteria about the prospects and consequences of a hung parliament, possibly the most noteworthy contribution was David Yelland’s surprisingly thoughtful piece in Monday’s Guardian. Yelland speculates that an unexpected by-product of no one party achieving a parliamentary majority would be that Rupert Murdoch’s lengthy and malign influence over British politics may be dealt an unlikely blow.

This might explain the ludicrous tone of the General Election coverage in Monday’s edition of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. The paper’s YouGov election poll (which put the Lib Dems in the lead on 33%) clearly demonstrated that The Sun’s six month propaganda campaign on behalf of the Conservatives has had precious little effect on its own readership. Undaunted, they went for the Lib Dem jugular. Page after page attempted to whip the reader into a frenzy of terror at the prospect of life under “loony” Lib Dem overlords. Scrapping the Trident replacement would inevitably lead to the humiliation of Brittania before the enemies of the Empire, the country would prostrate itself at the feet of the evil European socialist conspiracy, and (worst of all) the place would be bloody well crawling in immigrants.

I suppose Nick Clegg should be flattered. If (arguably) the world’s most powerful man has unleashed his principle attack dog on them, then the Lib Dems must be doing something right. Moreover, NewsCorp must fear something unwelcome around the corner if Clegg has a hand in the next government. As we know, Murdoch’s operation is only concerned with one thing: continued business success. In the case of his British media interests, this has always been inextricably linked with being on the right side of the people who regulate the industry. The Sun’s opportunistic switch last year from Labour to the Tories was a classic example of this: NewsCorp judged that Cameron was going to win, so it was time to reignite the flame that burned so strongly during the union-filleting Thatcher years.

Perhaps their biggest fear, as David Yelland speculates, is having people in charge with whom they have no relationship. They’ve never bothered with Clegg and they’ve burned their bridges with Brown, and if Cameron fails to seal the deal on 6th May Murdoch won’t have anyone to play with. The news coverage would inevitably be spiteful and dishonest but, perhaps only for a short time, the government could go about its business without having to run things by the editor of The Sun. Perhaps as part of that process we might even end up having a sensible debate about the nature of media ownership in Britain.

Leave the BBC alone

In my (occasionally humble) opinion the BBC is one of the very best things about living on this island. The news coverage is second to none; radio, documentary, drama and comedy output is far superior to the British commercial networks; the website is just about the best there is, and you only have to suffer five minutes of Clive Tyldesley’s infuriating, moronic football commentary (“remember that night in Barcelona”) to know that the quality of sports coverage on the BBC is unrivalled, even if the other networks wield a greater budget.

You wouldn’t think that, of course, if you had endured regular exposure to the right-wing press over the past few decades. In the world of Murdoch, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, the BBC is nothing short of a subversive plot to overturn everything that is decent and traditional in Britain; it’s a hotbed for raving left-wing homosexuals who spend their every waking hour plotting to giftwrap our freedom and identity and hand it all over to those sinister imperialists on mainland Europe and the international Islamic conspiracy.

The BBC is constantly under assault from these quarters and there seems to be an eternal stream of spineless politicians who are more than happy to play along. There are never-ending accusations of bias against the BBC, ludicrously from all sides of the political spectrum. Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw recently accused the BBC of “feeble” coverage of planned Tory spending cuts only to be ticked off by Jeremy Hunt, his Conservative Shadow, for “interfering in the BBC’s day-to-day political coverage”. Hunt, of course, had conveniently forgotten his own call a few weeks earlier for the Corporation to recruit more Tories to their news-gathering team, but who said you had to be fair when sticking the boot into the BBC? The truth is that the BBC is soft on everyone these days for the simple reason that, as an institution, it is terrified.

Murdoch has been circling for some time now, and he has a willing accomplice in David Cameron, a man who gives the impression of being so desperate for a favourable mention in The Sun’s ‘Page Three Briefs’ that he is more than happy to oversee the carving up of the BBC into bitesized chunks. (Anything to help his fairweather friend have his wicked way with Britain’s media.) You get the impression that the BBC don’t want to give the – essentially empty – Tory project a hard time because they fear what may be on the way.

Of course, the BBC isn’t perfect. It’s had its difficulties (Ross/Brand, Gilligan etc) and it’s a struggle to justify the continued existence of BBC Three, but do I think the licence fee represents value for money? You bet I do. Compare the expense of Murdoch’s Sky (which still comes with adverts, yet demonstrates no gain in quality in spite of all the extra revenue) to the TV licence and there’s only one winner.

The BBC is easily Britain’s strongest overseas ‘brand’, a name known and trusted all over the world, yet we are constantly taught by the press barons that we should hold it in contempt. So switch the BBC off for a week and see how you get on. Enjoy Murdoch’s “fair and balanced” FOX News or the rather sneakier Sky News, revel in the sporting insight of Tyldesley and Beglin, or maybe you’d enjoy an afternoon diet of adverts for consolidation loans and ambulance chasers. After seven days of such mediocrity it might become a touch clearer that perhaps the BBC isn’t so bad after all.

MPs to get “Down With The Kids”

One of the more depressing aspects of the endless pandering to headlines engaged in by the political parties (all of them – I’m not just going to give the Tories a kicking for a change) is that we all end up having to suffer hopeless, counter-productive legislation which usually tends to do a lot more harm than good. A classic example of this is the attitude and policies of successive governments towards the thorny issue of drugs.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: the policies of British governments to control the use of recreational drugs have never worked. Never. Drug use continues to rise, as do the resultant crime statistics, but administration after administration doggedly sticks to the mantra of tighter prohibition. (Except for alcohol and tobacco, of course – we wouldn’t want to lose those political donations, would we?)

There was much hand-wringing on all sides when Alan Johnson found himself in hot water a month or so back due to the sacking of Professor David Nutt, the government’s drugs adviser, but his is just the latest in a long line of posturing idiocies over the issue. Johnson, previously the great hope to rescue the Labour Party from defeat at the General Election, appeared to succumb to the same old fear of adverse headlines which has been affecting our elected representatives for decades now. But then, put yourself in his shoes: imagine the rage of the Daily Mail/Sun headline writers if any politician was brave enough to stick their head above the parapet and suggest that, perhaps, we might want to do things a bit differently. It’s a depressing reality which apparently leaves us doomed to an eternity of disastrous policies which continue to condemn communities to a self-perpetuating cycle of crime and drug abuse.

I suppose then, that I should welcome the initiative by MPs to actually visit an establishment where ‘youngsters’ go of an evening, but I feel myself cringing with embarrassment before it’s even happened. The MPs in question will go to a club (supposedly to get an idea of how the cocaine trade works on the ground) wearing stiff suits – or worse, dressed down to be ‘down with the kids’. They will look totally out of place for the twenty or so minutes they stay. They will arrive with pre-conceived ideas and, sadly, probably leave with the same views. They’ll return to their committee and no doubt trot out the same prohibitionist drivel they’ve always come out with, only this time they’ll be able to say they’ve given their views legitimacy by seeing at first hand how things happen. I fear the whole thing will be an exercise in window dressing, and that we’ll be no further forward when they’ve finished.

Probably the best hope for a change in the way this issue is debated is the impending demise of the ‘Dead Tree’ press. The print media, which sadly still holds a disproportionate grip on the terms of debate of almost any issue, is in terminal decline. The internet is fast taking over from newspapers as a tool for news gathering and opinion forming, and even Rupert Murdoch predicts an end to the use of paper by the end of the next decade. While I have no doubt that the Mail and the Sun will find other ways to muddy free debate in the political arena, perhaps there is hope that their vice-like grip will soon slip. Maybe then our politicians will feel a little bolder – and maybe then we’ll start to talk some sense on the issue of drugs.

Gordon Brown, The Sun and THAT Letter

I have to admit that this story kind of passed me by yesterday. I heard about it on the radio, was surprised that the BBC led their bulletins on this for most of the day, but essentially dismissed it as more biased tabloid nonsense from Murdoch. When I woke up this morning to find that the Sun was still setting the BBC’s news agenda, and that they’d raised the stakes by publishing a phone conversation between Gordon Brown and Jacqui Janes, I started to become increasingly angered by the whole feeding frenzy. The icing on the cake was when I learned that the Daily Mail’s turd-in-residence Richard Littlejohn had thrown his oar in.

gordon-brownI have to ask: “What the hell is going on here?”. I’m not a Brown enthusiast and I’m not a Labour supporter (not these days, anyway) but the Sun’s nasty, exploitative coverage of this story makes me want to throw a protective arm around the Prime Minister. Yes the letter was a bit scruffy, yes there were errors in it, but let’s not forget that Gordon Brown sat down to hand-write a letter of condolence to a grieving mother. What he didn’t do was set out to find the best way to offend, upset or insult Mrs Janes, although by the tone of some of the coverage you could be forgiven for thinking that.

I don’t blame Jacqui Janes for any of this. She has lost her precious son fighting in a war that many of us are struggling to understand. Surely there can be nothing worse than burying a child. The villain of the piece has to be the Sun ‘newspaper’ for exploiting a grieving mother to give a half-blind man a kicking over his handwriting, because that’s what this boils down to. Murdoch’s agenda is clear: “Back the Tories (because it looks like they might win) and stick the knife into the one-eyed Scotsman at every opportunity”. Nothing short of disgusting.

The other question that must be asked is where are the other party leaders? Why haven’t David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Alec Salmond et al stepped forward to say that, while they may have many issues with the government’s handling of the Afghan War, this kind of personal assault on the Prime Minister is unacceptable? Cameron, of course, wants to consummate his relationship with Wapping but that is no excuse for staying silent.

What is encouraging is that it looks like this may be backfiring on the Sun. Contributors to the breakfast television and radio news programmes seemed to be broadly of the opinion that Brown’s mistake was an honest one and that the Sun’s behaviour was reprehensible, and other blog posts from people who are not natural allies of the Prime Minister (I’ve picked out Caron Lindsay and Sara Bedford, but there are many others) show that there aren’t many outside of the Murdoch empire who want to play party politics with this one.

Having said that, I don’t for one minute think that this will be the last piece of vile gutter journalism from that quarter between now and the election, and I don’t suppose this will be the last time the broadcast media lurches after Murdoch’s agenda without stopping to consider what should really be making the news. But I hope Gordon Brown is undeterred from personally writing to the bereaved and I also hope, when the tabloid vultures have stopped circling, that Jacqui Janes will come to understand that the Prime Minister made an honest, human mistake.