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How Cameron turned the media loose on the government

David Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition and of the Conservative Party, is mainly known here as the man who makes Perry de Havilland spit blood.

But quite aside from the fact that most of us here disagree with the things that Cameron has been saying in recent months, there is the puzzle of why he has been saying them. I am thinking of things like fluffing on tax cuts, the NHS, Europe, and so on. He seems determined not just to be more left wing than Conservatives used to be. He seems to want to be more left wing than the country. All the politicians, for instance, now seem to accept the virtues or at least the inevitability of relentlessly high taxation. Except the voters!

Tony Blair did not get where he got by altering the substance of Thatcherism. He did it by putting a more amenable face on the front of it, that of a Hugh Grantish ingratiator, rather than of a bald, out-of-touch, Conservative. Cannot Cameron see that? What the country seems to want is Conservatism with a non-Conservative face. Thatcherite policies, but without those smug bastard, crowing and thieving Conservatives fronting for it all. They want Blair, before he became mired in sleaze and incompetence. But Cameron has gone out of his way to supply more than this. The Conservative Party has changed, he says. Who is he trying to convince, and of what?

Why is he apparently dumping all of the substance of Thatcherism, and thereby risking the very leakage that Perry notes, of voters from the Conservatives to things like UKIP, or almost as damagingly, to the screw-them-all-we’re-not-voting-for-anybody party? The we’re-not-voting-for-anybody party has really hurt the Conservatives in recent elections. Why is Cameron risking the wrath of this party yet again?

I think we can best understand Cameron’s performance so far as an exercise in allowing the mainstream media to attack Labour.

Media people are never going to like Conservatives, but towards this Conservative or that Conservative they feel very variable degrees of dislike. Cameron has presented himself to London’s media people as the kind of Conservative Prime Minister that they would be willing to put up with, given that they have to put up with Conservative Prime Ministers from time to time.

This has made a big difference to the political atmosphere of Britain. I recall, somewhat over a year ago (I have searched through the Samizdata archives but have failed to find the posting in question – sorry), noting that something had happened to what used to be called “Fleet Street”, and that suddenly they were really putting the knife in. At the time, I was rather puzzled, but guessed it might have something to do with some particularly annoying tax things that Gordon Brown had just been doing. Now, I believe that the biggest difference has been made by David Cameron. There has never been a lack of stories about this Labour Government which the mainstream media might have used to ruin it. The sleaze and incompetence have been more or less continuous, from the start. What has changed is that ‘Fleet Street’, as it used to be called, never liked to put the knife in too deep, for fear of letting the hated Conservatives back in. Now that they do not hate the Conservatives nearly so much, they are now ready to indulge their natural instinct to wreck the government of the day. Wrecking governments of the day is what mainstream media people live to do. This is their real bias. They are biased in favour of their own power to smash things up whenever they decide to, and they hate having to restrain themselves, year after year. Of course they have their various prejudices, which you have to doff your hat to if you want to get a good press. But the point is at least as much the doffing of the hat as the particular content of their opinions at any particular time, which in any case keep on changing.

There has for some months now been a savagery about press attacks on the Government that was lacking when the alternative to a Labour government was Hague, or Duncan Smith, or Howard, none of whom were nearly grovelling enough towards Fleet Street, although they did sometimes try. All they said was: we realise that we have to seem different. That was not nearly good enough for the media people. They wanted real substance. They wanted real policy switches, away from Thatcherite Blairism, and towards their own prejudices. Cameron has given them this, on a whole series of issues, and they are now in the mood to reciprocate.

There was much talk over the weekend before last about how the government had used its plan – real or imaginary – to split the Home Office, into separate bits of incompetence rather than having the one big incompetent slab, as a way of deflecting attention from the fact that one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers had just been arrested, and in a manner strongly suggesting that the police reckon she was guilty. But were the journos just allowing the government to get everyone thinking about the Home Office again so that, only a day or two later, they could take another crack at its various blunderings? It certainly looks that way now.

Now the journos are starting to flag up the story that Guido Fawkes has been banging on about for weeks (presumably with journo help) about the non-charitableness of the Smith Institute, which now earns its keep laundering bribes to the next Prime Minister by paying the salaries of his gofers. These reports, and all the other tails of sleaze which the journos will soon be dredging up again about Brown mean that the new broom of Brownism will be covered in shit before it even starts to sweep.

(By the way, it is somewhat off the points I am making here, but I am told that Gordon Brown is some kind of enemy of Home Secretary John Reid, and that Brown’s various fixers and screamers encouraged the Sun to question John Reid’s brain functions in the way they did with that front page last week. Brown wants to be quite sure that John Reid cannot become the next Prime Minister rather than him, at no matter what cost in terms of the general sense that this is a Labour government is in an advanced state of collapse. To him this may seem cunning. To me it just seems totally bone-headed and cloth-eared.)

This government has been hated for a long time, and especially by media people, who really do not like being screamed at by foul-mouthed government bullies. They have also always hated the Iraq War. What is new is that now, because of the concentrated Fleet Street assault of the last few months, we have a government that is not just hated, but despised. Think: the switch from Thatcher to Major. Let them hate provided that they fear, etc. This government’s henchmen have been unapologetically barbaric and disgusting from the word go. But now that spin doctoring has degenerated into the art of failing even to flood the newspapers and TV screens with the government’s second worst clutch of embarrassments, the government’s fixers are becoming progressively worse at fixing anything at all.

It is not merely that these creatures are incapable of making the public sector work properly. They have never been any good at that, because nobody can ever do that – unless, like Mrs Thatcher, you threaten to shut the public sector down if it does not behave itself. No, far worse than the inability of the Blairites and the Brownites to govern the mere country adequately, these people can no longer now even manipulate the media satisfactorily. When governmental creatures now scream threats at insubordinate journos who are asking about the latest lot of cock-ups, it no longer matters. Their screams of rage just become part of the story.

David Cameron did not himself do any of this directly, but he did contrive the changed circumstances which enabled it to happen so completely. What he has done is to allow the media people to launch themselves at the Labour Party in all its various forms and factions. Just as Blair created a world in which the average Conservative supporter no longer cared if the Conservatives were the government or not, now Cameron has achieved the equal and opposite effect. Simply, this Labour government is now a ruin. And the voters can see it.

For remember, media people used to be Labour supporters almost to a man, whatever the mere owners of the media might think about things. When media people turn on this Labour government like wolves, that is like Middle England saying that William Hague is ridiculous or Iain Duncan Smith an oily creep or Michael Howard some kind of ghoul from beyond the grave.

None of which in any way contradicts the Perry de Havilland line on Cameron. But it does go some way to explaining what on earth he has been up to.

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22 comments to How Cameron turned the media loose on the government

  • Midwesterner

    While UK media appears to be more vicious (at least from here) I doubt there is any fundamental difference between the press in the UK and the press in the US.

    Media live on leaks and sources of leaks. Even when they hunt for and dig up stories, what they are really doing is finding leaks, whistle blowers and turncoats. Tightly run administrations are notably able to shut down a selected media outlet’s food supply. Any act great enough to arouse the ire of the party powerful or that gets a particular msm outlet a reputation for blowing a sources cover, is sure to dry up the really juicy sources as far as that outlet is concerned.

    Whether the Valerie Plame leaker (Plamegate) or Deap Throat (Watergate) or lower value sources, they are always protected to assure future stories from other sources. But when those sources no longer fear their own leaders, it’s open season.

    What I think you are in fact witnessing, is an administration that has become a circular firing squad. There is no cohesive force binding it into a well disciplined whole. When potentially hot New Labour scandals are even turning up on the couch at 18 Doughty Street, it says worlds about the state of the party in power and nothing about the attitude of the media.

    The media feeding frenzy can more likely be attributed to (1) lame duck leader unable to wield threats of any consequence over underlings and press, (2) no clearly annointed replacement for the party whips to defer to and protect, (3) media being used as weapons in internecine competition for power, (4) perception that the ‘other’ (in this case, Cameron), is also a kindred spirit to media ideals and/or will be a rich source of future circulation boosting stories if elected.

    I am afraid that none of ths gives me any reason for optimism regarding the Conservative party that I can see. But one can hope.

  • dearieme

    That’s rather persuasive, Brian.

  • guy herbert

    Brian,

    Tony Blair did not get where he got by altering the substance of Thatcherism.

    That rather implies even you have swallowed the lefty media idiocy of “I’m Tory plan B”. Say it isn’t so.

    Blair got where he got without doing anything to the country – it was his party he suppressed.

    When he got there he did alter the substance of Thatcherism. Immediately he began work to reverse the anti-statist bits, and to build real authoritarian controls where there had been only Daily Mail fodder and cod managerialism before. Blair’s revolution was more rapid and more profound than Thatcher’s. She left the constitution almost untouched. He transformed it, and is trying to do so more, faster, now, in an attempt to make what he has done irreversible.

    On the general point, I’m not convinced that Cameron’s triumph is complete. Media types have been brought up their entire lives in many cases to spit bile at the simple mention of Tories. In order to keep on doing so, they are wont to distinguish Cameron from his party, and carry on as before. It will take more than a year of niceness to change that. If it were doable at all it might require the kind of wholesale social reporogramming that Tories and libertarians baulk at, but is the natural currency of the New Labour state.

  • MarkE

    Blair fought a high publicity battle to remove clause four (taking the means of production into public ownership) from the Labour party’s constitution, and then, very quietly so as not to scare the voters, introduced all embracing government regulation of the means of production. You don’t need ownership if you control every decision a company’s owners make.

    Blair does not believe in individuals; you are either part of an approved “society” or “community”, or you are part of an unapproved one, to be eliminated (rural communities, the hunting community etc.). All legislation is aimed at groups, and “social inclusion” is an unquestioned good. This appeals to media types; when did you last see reference to a “loner” that wasn’t prefixed with “sad” (by a journalist who is probably terrified of leaving his home without a friend holding each hand, and another on the other end of his mobile)? The individuals who make up society must be subservient to the collective needs of that society.

    He leads a government that has seen an enormous growth in public sector employment. Part of this is a growth in the number of “services” provided; 5 a day; real nappies (diapers for our US friends); bike it; outreach officers for approved “communities (where is my local slaphead libertarian outreach officer though?) etc ad bankruptcy. The growth in public headcount is partly hidden by the number of jobs moved off balance sheet to companies like EDS, Capita and various PFI partners, and even without that, the scale is incredible.

    Despite the rhetoric, there has been a systematic redistribution from “hard working families” to those making a career of living on benefits. Some of this will be a cynical attempt to build a payroll vote, who have something to lose if Labour are not re-elected. Some must be a belief in this sort of redistribution.

    Government policy is based on presentation; a good sound bite is not about winning headlines; it is the only solution on offer. The soundbite has now replaced action. This may, if I’m generous, mean Labour have yet to realise after ten years that they are no longer in opposition, or it may mean they’re simply incompetent.

    Could someone tell me which of these actions show Blair as Thatcher’s heir?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Guy’s point about the constitution, power etc is a very good one. I don’t swallow the standard line that Blair was a sort of pink Tory, although in the early years, things like Bank of England independence helped that impression.

    However, the question as to whether Cameron has played a clever sort of “rope-a-dope” strategy (to borrow from Muhammed Ali) is an interesting one. My worry though is this: his strategy appears designed to appease the Guardian/BBC/Independent/Times classes. Now I am not up to date with newspaper circulation, but I am not sure whether the folk who read or write this papers and programmes are enough to carry the Tories into power.

    If the Tories were more than 10 percentage points ahead of NuLab in the polls, and consistently so, then I might regard the Cameron approach of being to the left of Blair as being quite canny, albeit completely amoral. But what happens if the Tories do not win next time?

    Cynicism is not clever if it does not work.

  • Brian’s got something here.

    On a scale of attitudes toward Cameron ranging on the one hand from, say, Iain Dale on the one end to Perry on the other, I’ve so far found myself somewhere in the middle. With each new pronouncement from Cameron I move closer to Perry’s end of the spectrum. What keeps me from jumping completely is that Cameron has achieved one very important thing for the Conservatives: he has made them almost acceptable.

    Remember the hatred of the Conservatives in the mid-90s? It lasted a decade. It really didn’t matter what Major, IDS, Hague, Howard or any other Tory said or did. Conservatives simply couldn’t get a look in.

    Cameron has, for all his faults (and they are many), at least made it acceptable at least to consider the Conservative party as the next party of government.

  • Mary Contrary

    Maybe. Quite possibly this is what Cameron thinks he’s up to. I’m quite sure that a lot of Camermorons think that’s what he’s up to.

    However there’s always the time factor. There’s only so long the media can go on polishing what the governmental sewer is spewing over the body politic, before it reverts to its natural instincts (which are as you describe). Was it necessary for Cameron to kow-tow to their Guardian-reader prejudices to “give them permission” to attack? Perhaps. But perhaps time does it alone.

    And without enough time, you’re sunk whatever you do: Cameron would have been just as doomed in poor old William Hague’s place.

    I wonder what things would be looking like now if Cameron had succeeded Major, then IDS, and William Hague was now in charge? I suspect they’d be much the same on the media-attack front, but with a more credible looking Conservative Party.

  • spruance

    That sounds more like an old bit of Kremlin Astrology! If you start guessing why somebody talks different from doing so, he’s a hypocrite or a liar or both – nothing else!

  • RAB

    Well said Mary. Hague was my first choice too, but the poor sod couldn’t have got arrested back then. He could have promised five years free of tax and wouldn’t have got elected. The voters just wern’t listening, and Cameron would done no better.

  • The problem with the claim that Cameron is to the Tories what Blair was to Labour is that it’s based on a complete mis-analysis (sic?)

    Blair was allowed by the news media to appear to have neutered the most obviously old-socialist tendencies of Labour (whether or not he actually did this is another matter).

    The point is that he was allowed to portray himself that way: in essence, he said, we have made peace with the market economy.

    But the market economy had not existed in this country for decades. Blair made peace with an Aunt Sally.

    Cameron, if you believe the schtick about him putting a gloss on real Tories to make them electable, has made peace with big government and ‘social justice’. These are not Aunt Sallies. They are going concerns.

    It is therefore irrelevant whether you believe that Cameron is being tactically, ah, duplicitous: in accepting the Left’s parameters of legitimate political action, Cameron has given himself a strait jacket from which he will never be free.

    If he is being tactically duplicitous, it is the tactical duplicity of a shallow thinker.

  • Paul Marks

    There is a big difference between the British press (not British broadcasters) and the American press.

    There are conservative newspapers in Britain, whereas in most of the United States there are no conservative newspapers (for example L.A. is the largest city in the Western world without any conservative newspapers).

    Of course there are plenty of leftists who work for British conservative newspapers such as the “Daily Telegraph” – but such newspapers still exist and they would attack the Labour government regardless of what Mr Cameron says or does.

    As for the left (the broadcasters, for there is no real difference between the B.B.C. and I.T.V. and C4, and the leftist newspapers) they will attack the government (again regardless of what Mr Cameron says or does) when it displeases them – for example on the Iraq war.

    In short, Brian, you have constructed a complex and intelligent argument – but one that is false.

    As for Mr Cameron, there is a much less complicated reason why he says leftist things – he is leftist.

    The most recent example is his support for the antidiscrimination law for people who engage in homosexual acts.

    Just as it is wrong to use the criminal or civil law to punish people who engage in homosexual acts, it is also wrong to use the criminal or civil law to try and force people to associate with people who engage in homosexual acts.

    “Freedom of association” must include freedom not to associate – or it is no freedom at all.

    To “discriminate” is to “choose” – forbidding “discrimination” is forbidding freedom of choice.

    If I choose not to associate with (for example) blond people I may be a fool and a bigot, but my choice should be no concern of the criminal or civil law.

    To forbid “discrimination” is to violate basic freedom – not just religious freedom, any freedom.

    It was grimly predictable that faced with a choice between freedom of association and the doctrine of “anti discrimination” Mr Cameron would choose to support state control. So much for his “big idea” of the greater delivery of “public services” by voluntary groups.

    Both Mr Blair and Mr Cameron have shown themselves to be people who only support association if people associate in the way they COMMAND.

  • Midwesterner

    At 9:37AM, Mark E said:

    Blair fought a high publicity battle to remove clause four (taking the means of production into public ownership) from the Labour party’s constitution, and then, very quietly so as not to scare the voters, introduced all embracing government regulation of the means of production. You don’t need ownership if you control every decision a company’s owners make.

    Blair does not believe in individuals; you are either part of an approved “society” or “community”, or you are part of an unapproved one, to be eliminated …

    If he is correct, he is describing textbook fascism, or National Socialism.

    Is Blair and his newly recreated UK government fascist? If this is, in fact, the case, what does the future hold?

  • guy herbert

    Is Blair and his newly recreated UK government fascist? If this is, in fact, the case, what does the future hold?

    Yes. Its programme has been recognisably so from very early on.

    To quote myself a year ago:

    I’ve been making the case that Blairism is closer to fascism than any other recognisable political doctrine for a while. (Since long before I’d heard of Samizdata.) But it is a soft facism, a cult of the victim, rather the the hard fascism of blood-spattered heroism. So it has features in common with Christianity as well as a strange provenance in the New Left. Understanding this is a precursor to fighting it, since one must understand and counter its public appeal.

    Or read the credo of the new state here.

  • Paul Marks

    What Guy points to (via the link) shocks me.

    I would not have thought that the politicians of the new regime would be so blatent in their rejection of the traditional British idea of freedom (freedom FROM the state), and their acceptance of the collectivist idea of “freedom” – freedom as being part of the state.

    If “the noble lord” is correct in claiming that most British people support his view of “freedom” then this country is finished.

  • Midwesterner

    Quoting Lord Gould:

    … the identity cards represent the future: a new kind of freedom and a new kind of identity.

    In a statement that is offensive in so many ways, this sentence is the most telling. And when these identity cards are required for all activities of daily life, they will no longer need to pin a symbol of which group we belong to on our sleeves in order to make sure we are treated appropriately. !!!

  • cubanbob

    If Cameron is what passes as a conservative in the UK, I’m afraid to ask what constitutes a communist in the UK.

  • Rob Spear

    Perhaps there is hope that the sequential media contempt for Tories and now Labour might be built into a healthy feeling of contempt for all government in the hearts of the British people.

  • guy herbert

    Cubanbob,

    He looks like our Home Secretary, a recovering communist.

    Your typology is a little dated. We really don’t have to worry about anyone who calls themselves a communist, and haven’t had to since the 70s. Many of the people in charge now did call themselves communists in the 60s and 70s, but that I suggest is more epiphanic of fanatic tendencies than an indication of continuing belief in what communism affected to be – or what John Birchers thought it was.

    Philip Gould’s peroration reminded me of something else when I re-read it:

    Oh Fatherland, Fatherland,
    Show us the sign
    Your children have waited to see.
    The morning will come
    When the world is mine.
    Tomorrow belongs to me!

  • guy herbert

    Or, in his own words:

    New Labour, the party of modernisation, has renewed again. But it will not be the last time.

    “Permanent revolution” is perhaps a better label for what is happening in British politics today than permanent campaigning.

  • hardatwork

    I was hoping Cameron was a stealth tory and not NuLab. I’m still hoping he’ll at least be tough on the causes of socialism and maybe have a stab at declientising the state and privatising the beeb. It may be too much to hope for.

  • Sam Duncan

    Like Dr. Syn, I think Brian’s on to something. It’s certainly arguable that Blair didn’t leave the substance of Thatcherism intact, but leaving that aside for the moment, look at the way he presented himself, and why. “Middle Britain” has always been Labour’s hardest target. But in the ’90s, it had become alienated from the Tories for various reasons. It would be more or less impossible to convert these lifelong Conservative voters to the socialist cause, but they were open to mollification. They could be subdued. He created the impression among dissatisfied Tories that, although they could never vote Labour, it was safe to “let them in” by refraining from voting for a Conservative Party they could no longer support. Yes, it was a lie; collectivism was purused by other – worryingly National-Socialist-like – means, but the illusion was created for a reason.

    Right now, the Tories’ bête noire, the media, are similarly dissilusioned with their champion, Labour. It would be just as impossible for Cameron to convince them to actually support him, but they too can be made to feel safe. Safe enough to attack the Government. An opportunity presented itself to both men, and they both exploited it.

    But I think that’s as far as the comparison can be taken. How much does Cameron mean it? How much does he actually intend to pursue small-government free-market conservatism by other means? By what other means can small-government free-market conservatism be pursued? Buggered if I can see any.