By Paul Goodman
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Strictly speaking, it was not the lobby and the media that forced Andrew Mitchell's resignation yesterday. It was the unprecedented meeting of Wednesday's 1922 Committee, which found itself discussing whether or not he should continue as Chief Whip: the very fact that such a conversation took place at all made his position impossible. But that meeting's event only took place because the Police Federation had kept the Mitchell story going for the best part of a month. And the story had been kept going for that period because the lobby and the media made it happen.
They made it happen not only because the Chief Whip was unpopular with some lobby journalists, but because the media (and in particular the Sun, which broke the story) wanted to come out on top. This is not evidence of anti-Tory bias: it was no less aggressive in the case of Mr Mitchell or of Liam Fox than in the cases of, say, Peter Mandelson or Stephen Byers when New Labour ruled the roost. Neither is its aggression necessarily a bad thing: on balance, it is better to have a puffed-up media than a cowed one.
Nor is it usually motivated by a determination to destroy politicians. Indeed, the tussles between the media and government tend to have the air about them of a child testing its father in a pillow fight. The child wants both to win the tussle and respect the father's strength. Yesterday's risible Twitter brouhaha about George Osborne's rail ticket was an example of the genre. But the politician being tested now is not so much the Chancellor as the Prime Minister. The media follow-up to his slip in Commons over energy tarrifs was an example of the scrutiny he is under, and for a predominant reason: it believes that the Government is shambolically run.
Tom Newton Dunn, the Sun's Political Editor, was emphasising the point yesterday evening on Twitter in the wake of his paper's "victory" in the Mitchell affair. Mention of the Sun is a reminder of how weak a position the Murdoch stable in particular and the media generally was only very recently. Amist the hacking scandal, it was claimed that News of the World journalists had deleted voicemail messages from Millie Dowler's phone (wrongly). Mr Murdoch closed the paper. Ed Miliband, sensing Government weakness, leapt on the bandwagon. Mr Cameron conceded the Leveson Enquiry. Statutory regulation of the media seemed possible – even probable.
The Mitchell resignation is one more sign that the media is back on top. Parts of it are tweaking the Prime Minister's tail over his unpublished texts to Rebecca Brooks – a warning to him not to concede statutory regulation if Lord Leveson recommends it. It has also made the most of any indication from Lord Leveson of hostility to ordinary reporting – for example, in relation to a complaint by the judge to the Times about the In The Thick Of It Leveson parody which will be shown this evening. It's worth noting that the man who can claim to have turned the tide against Leveson is a politician, though admittedly one who is also a journalist: Michael Gove.
It was the Education Secretary's exquisitely polite but unremittingly defiant evidence to Leveson that signalled a Government retreat from the enquiry that Mr Cameron himself had set up. The Jimmy Savile scandal looks to speed that backing-off: a free media is needed, the argument runs, precisely in order to bring people like Savile to book (something, by the way, that it singularly failed to do in that case). The right-of-centre media is running with the Savile story not only to bash the BBC or because it is compelling in its own right: it is sending a powerful signal about Leveson. I suspect that the judge himself knows that the bulk of his report is destined for the circular filing cabinet.
And the Mitchell affair has given the media the chance to send a reminder to the Prime Minister: don't you dare take us on.