David Cameron’s European negotiations have generally received a far rougher reception in the press than at the hands of Eurosceptic politicians. On several recent mornings, or to be more exact at about ten o’clock the previous evening, he has found himself pelted with abuse.
“Yesterday, seemingly gripped by the conviction that he is securing a triumph for Britain, Mr Cameron made the hair-raising observation that he would urge the UK to join the EU on these terms, even if we were not already a member.
“Oh yes? Would we really want to join a sclerotic, corrupt bureaucracy whose leaders have no comprehension of the historic scale of the crises facing them?… … Wouldn’t this be like buying a ticket for the Titanic after it struck the iceberg?”
These denunciations prompt two questions: is there something wrong with Cameron’s handling of the press, and if so, does it matter?
The worst error some of Cameron’s predecessors made about the press was to show they cared too much about bad coverage. Ramsay MacDonald, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson and John Major all suffered from being excessively thin-skinned.
Cameron, so far as one can see, does not suffer from that fault. Before becoming leader, he seized the opportunity to show a certain resilience when the Daily Mail demanded for day after day that he “come clean” about whether or not he had taken drugs in the past. He refused to do so, and turned the subject to his advantage by saying on Question Time on BBC1:
“I’m allowed to have had a private life before politics, in which we make mistakes and we do things that we should not – and we are all human and we err and stray. And I think if you want to have machines as politicians who have never done anything wrong, I think that is a very sad day and we should not be driven by the media on that.”
This drew applause from the studio audience. The Mail offered him the chance to write a piece in the paper, which appeared under the headline “The truth about my attitude to drugs”, and contained the lines:
“I know there’s a suspicion that, because of my age and background, I have a tolerant attitude towards drugs. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve seen the dreadful damage that drugs can do.”
He took and takes unwearying trouble to get as good a press as he can. If anything, Cameron was seen as excessively eager, during his early years as Leader of the Opposition, to gain favourable coverage by performing stunts with huskies etc. At press conferences, he seemed almost too pleased to be able to remember the names of even quite obscure journalists, and on at least one occasion he gave each of us a sapling in order to demonstrate how green he was.
But a colleague who has known him for a long time says he appears to have an unusual ability to forget, or at least avoid dwelling on, whatever has gone wrong on any particular occasion, including bad press coverage: “The troubles of the day die with the day.”
The second question, of whether unfavourable coverage of, for example, Cameron’s EU deal, really matters, is deeply imponderable. In 1975, when newspaper circulations were twice as high as they are now, the press was almost unanimously in favour of a Yes vote in the referendum, which was duly obtained: but so were a great many other influential people and organisations.
It is clear that many Labour-voting readers of the Mail, Sun, Telegraph etc are unaffected by those papers’ political views, which to most readers are less important than the sports coverage. Kim Kardashian is to most readers of Mail Online more interesting than David Cameron.
Even if one is interested in politics, one may read a particular paper for its news coverage or its features, and allow its editorial prejudices to wash over one without any apparent effect. The more strongly those views are expressed, the more easily they may be discounted, or even be taken as a sign of inward insecurity.
The Mail‘s detestation of Cameron is a demonstration of its editorial independence.To be rude to those in power is an essential part of our idea of liberty.
It is also an essential part of journalism, and makes for better copy. A few years ago, Lord Fowler, as chairman of a House of Lords committee, asked Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mail‘s owner:
“If Paul Dacre [the Daily Mail's editor] changed the policy of the paper to legalising cannabis and in favour of joining the euro—which I do concede is an unlikely event, but if he did—would not the Board intervene at that point?”
Lord Rothermere responded, “I do not believe those are extreme enough for us to get involved”, and added that “in order to hire the best editors, and in order to have a relationship of trust with our readers, we need to allow them the integrity and the freedom to edit”.
When reminded that the first Lord Rothermere had been “very hands-on” during the 1930s, the present Lord Rothermere replied: “Perhaps because of that, that is why we have the policy!”
He and his colleagues insisted that nowadays, commercial considerations come first, and are served by letting the editor run the paper. Not that one wishes to suggest that either the Sun or the Mail, or indeed any paper that has ever been published, is entirely impervious to outside influences.
At the start of the Sun editorial quoted at the beginning of this piece is found the sentence: “Cameron is, on the whole, an excellent Prime Minister.”
And at the start of the Mail editorial is found an equally incongruous admission: “The Mail admires David Cameron. He has been markedly successful in turning the economy around.”
Can it be that we see here the traces of a Number 10 charm offensive?