When so many other election forecasts proved misguided, who can begrudge us for looking back to our leader page of three months ago, when we prophesied that the right-wing press would turn on the Labour leader Ed Miliband with a ferocity not seen since Neil Kinnock’s campaign in 1992? We were wrong – just as John Curtice was wrong in his momentous 10pm exit poll result on May 7 – only in underestimating the scale of the assault on Labour.
The press was vitriolic. It was personal. It was crudely abusive, even before Labour said it would revisit and implement Lord Justice Leveson. Now it was kill or be killed, with no one stopping to ask whether the Labour leader would really make press regulation his big priority in the event of victory. Only one side was going to walk out of this fight alive: it just wasn’t clear which side that would be.
So the coverage was predictable, as was the immediate reaction to it. The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and The Sun were accused of perverting democracy. Their excesses had to be curbed. It was time for real regulation. Interestingly, those who demanded such action most passionately seemed not to have read the Daily Mirror. It does not reach so many readers, but if right wing papers went over the top in visualising impending Marxist rule, the Mirror matched them blow for blow in evoking jack-booted Tories, eager to grind the faces of the poor. And while we are on readership, we might also acknowledge the online success of The Guardian, which allows that title to disseminate left wing wisdom to an audience almost as great as that of the Daily Mail and MailOnline.
There is of course a good reason why we should not try to stop newspapers saying what they like, provided they operate within the boundaries of the law. It is that such an assault on free speech would be more damaging than any current harm. Some who advocate stronger regulation seem to believe it would make papers more civilized, but nothing proposed in the United Kingdom has ever addressed tone. It would take real statutory control to make papers present issues with the impartiality expected of – if not always delivered by – broadcasters. Does anyone want that? As for the idea that papers might treat politicians with respect, how might that be enforced?
As so often with eruptions of anguish and rage, the temperature has cooled with the passing of time. The right wing press has moved complacently to make a hero of a Conservative leader about whom it harboured great doubts. It has seized the opportunity to give the BBC its traditional kicking, accusing the broadcaster of political bias and relishing the arrival of John Whittingdale, a man believed to share that view, as Culture Secretary. The left wing press, in opening its inquest on the election result, has started to question Labour’s policy and leader, the party’s competence in getting out the vote and the nature of its campaign. The blame does not fall entirely on capitalist proprietors after all.
But before we too move on, we should ask whether this election showed the British press at the top of its game or reflected an alarming hysteria and a decline in standards. This is not a point about influencing voters, for who knows whether front pages emboldened “shy Tories” to come out or terrified “don’t knows” into voting Conservative? Indeed, the new wisdom is that newspapers achieved their main impact in setting the agenda for broadcasters. Rather, we inquire about journalistic quality and the collapse of long-standing tenets of the trade such as the division between news and comment.
We’ve suggested before that, while there have been some serious breaches of the criminal law and many examples of bad behaviour in contravention of the editors’ code, the newspaper industry has brought much opprobrium on its own head simply through its tone. Spare us the line about speaking truth to power: for years our papers have spoken with all the arrogance of the powerful. It is entirely up to them what they print and we would not have it any other way, but they are foolish if they believe their readers – in any section of the market – cannot tell the good from the bad. We readers watched titles rip up the rules about separating comment from news, run news stories that disintegrated on close reading and turn front pages over to party propaganda. It smacked of desperation, bringing nothing to mind so much as the defiant refrain of Millwall football fans, another group that traditionally revels in its barbarousness: no one likes us, we don’t care. Well we do care. We just want you to be better.