Published on 20 Oct 2012

The press boys are back in town

On the implications of the Mitchell affair rather than the detail of who said what, I recommend this piece just posted by former Tory MP Paul Goodman on what it means for who’s up and who’s down in the government/media power struggle. He talks about how the government has pulled back from its original approach (all the signals were that they could live with light touch statutory regulation) and how the newspapers’ assertion of power in this latest power struggle between the estates of the land over “gate-gate” shows the press are back.

Mr Goodman writes: “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  Parts of it are tweaking the Prime Minister’s tail over his unpublished texts to Rebecca Brooks – a warning to him not to concede statutory regulation if Lord Leveson recommends it.”

Appearances at Leveson

Paul Goodman mentions Michael Gove’s appearance at Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry which signalled a swerve away from any sort of statutory control whatsoever. I would dispute Paul Goodman’s description of Michael Gove’s appearance as “exquisitely polite” and say it was “excruciatingly polite”, a touch disingenuously using the trappings of politesse to license or camouflage a contemptuous slap-down to what he appeared to think was an unwordly judge. That, judging by Lord Justice Leveson’s snappish response on the day, was how it felt to him.

George Osborne followed Michael Gove in a similar approach though with less tart delivery. Both signalled the government didn’t want to use laws to control the press and the flexing of press muscle over Mitchell will have reminded the Tory leadership what that muscle can deliver.

If Lord Justice Leveson wants regulation that goes beyond the beefed-up self-regulation the government might incline towards, Lord Justice Leveson has some useful allies in the hacking victims, a new power in the land who David Cameron has said must be satisfied.

But Lord Justice Leveson isn’t packing in the allies anywhere else. The tone of the letters that he sent out to newspaper editors alerting them to his draft thoughts on the industry have clearly infuriated even some of the most straight-laced at the broadsheet end of the market. And now there’s a report that he queried a piece in The Times on “The Thick of It” satirising inquiries. Anyway, all this to come some time in the next few weeks.

Police sources

We probably shouldn’t ignore the other institution in play in the story – the police. It’s meant to be bad form for journalists to speculate on other journalists’ sources but I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that The Sun scoop that kicked off this story was triggered by a tip-off from the normally super discreet police protection force. If so, why might a normally buttoned-up lot be talking?

Former head of counter-terrorism, John Yates took a stab at the answer in the Telegraph when the story broke. Mr Yates wrote: “Festering police resentment against the Government” played a role. He said the whole thing could be a curtain-raiser for what’ll happen when Tom Winsor reports on police pay and conditions. He also said how odd it was that the Met chief, after contact with the cabinet secretary, decided against any inquiry into the fairly important question of who was telling the truth, the police who would continue in vital roles (albeit switched from Downing Street) or the minister at the heart of government. Not worth pursuing, Bernard Hogan-Howe decided, much to the annoyance of some of his increasingly restless frontline troops.

Balance of power

What the Mitchell affair also tells you about is the balance of power in the Tory parliamentary ranks. David Cameron’s writ does not run that far. His cabinet reshuffle should’ve been a moment when his patronage powers were asserted but it exposed him as a man at the mercy of ministers least in tune with his original political project. Justine Greening rubbished the Cameron doctrine on international aid and was rewarded with a plea to take the portfolio anyway. IDS refused to make way for someone more malleable in welfare.

I hear of another cabinet minister who was refused his request to bring a special adviser with him from his previous job, threatened not to move in the circumstances and got his way. At a meeting with supposedly loyal PPSs at the cabinet table this week, three parliamentary aides told David Cameron to his face that Andrew Mitchell should go. The specially constructed 1922 backbench meeting on Wednesday, the insurrection by the whips team supposed to work with Andrew Mitchell, the mutterings of cabinet ministers have had a cumulative effect, all of it undermining the PM’s authority.

The parliamentary ranks and Mr Cameron’s officers have effectively told the PM he was wrong-headed to keep Andrew Mitchell and they have won the day.

Follow Gary Gibbon on Twitter via @GaryGibbonBlog

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11 reader comments

  1. Jane says:

    i agree with much of what you say with the exception of the role of the press. That sounds awfully arrogant and of course an opinion by one MP. I look at circulation and my own personal behaviour. A few years ago I subscribed to several newspapers daily and most of the publications at weekends. I now subscribe to the NYT and the FT only. Many of the papers are out of date at time of publishing, many rehash stories reported on the web days before and many are conjecture rather than fact. Even the once wonderful Independent is now a rag. Political journalists are full of their own importance and their reports often treat us as imbeciles. Thank goodness for BBC Parliament and Hansard!

  2. Bob Denmark says:

    Gary Gibbon mentions “the police” as players in this political scenario. Once that would have meant only official spokesmen, but no longer. Unlike some members of ACPO, the rank and file have no vested interest in sucking up to politicians. At least the Government have advisers and experienced civil servants to guide their dealings with the Police Federation, but wait until Police Commissioners start throwing their weight around. You might see the police speaking out not only for their own interests, but for what they see as the interests of the public. The politicisation of policing may well do deserved harm to the conservatives, but much greater harm to society in the long run.

  3. Philip says:

    It is largely opinion & hearsay, but Cameron is coming across as increasingly weak – and therefore prone to doing stupid things to shore up his brittle support on the right. I suppose we have to be grateful that, despite their cowardice & desire to remain in Government, at least the LibDems will prevent the worst of it….or some of the worst of it. But they can’t force their coalition partners to do things they don’t want to do & it seems increasingly that the Cameron-Brooks comunications are being used to blackmail Cameron into doing virtually nothing over press regulation. Yet again – like MPs expenses – politicians seem to be forgetting, mired in their own self-interest, what the public think about media behaviour & expect more than a revamping of the present laughably ineffective arrangements. The narrative is being built up – of the Government surrendering to powerful people whose actions have gravely damaged the UK through craven self-interest.

  4. Y.S. says:

    I dont think Andrew Mitchell should have resigned.
    Labour has been calling for him to go for weeks, then when he goes they say its weak leadership. What a load of twadswallop.
    OK he might have said something bad, is it worse then the MP,s ripping us of with their expances claims? NO.
    Is it worse then the papers making stories up then apologising later if they get found out? NO.
    If he has to go then i hope lots of MP,s and newspaper owners start clearing their desk and go.
    The gate incident was a matter of the police trying to put the minister in his place … and the minister trying to put the police in their place.

    1. Philip says:

      But this is politics. Cameron is desperate to avoid being tarred with the “Lord Snooty” brush & whether or not Mitchell called the PC a “pleb”, it’s exactly the sort of thing he doesn’t want his ex-public school Ministers being though of as saying. I would agree with you that if you regard Mitchell’s offence as wirthy of resignation, there are dozens of MPs & many media executoives who should be going first, but they’re not the eye of this particular PR storm.

  5. Commissioner Diss says:

    One thing is assured, the name Andrew Mitchell will be branded into the brains of Met Police Officers. There will be questions asked about how this whole affair was handled by the Met Federation and the way a “Confession” was demanded.
    It does not look healthy when a Politician or a member of the Public is called a liar for no other reason than they disagree with the Police version of events. We have to get through Hillsborough yet, which clearly shows the dangers of assuming a Police Uniform reflects a person’s moral standing.
    Every good Police Officer, and that is the Majority, should welcome their integrity being questioned.

  6. Philip Edwards says:

    Gary,

    “The press boys”?

    Would they be the same array of liars, crooks and ultra right wing propagandists we saw trailing through the Leveson Inquiry, who lied about or ignored the truth of the Hillsborough disaster for 23 years, who manufacture and profit from the whole “celebrity business,” who promoted police corruption, who promoted war in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan, and who have so signally failed to hold international bankers to account?……..Is it them you mean?

    Done a bang-up job so far haven’t they?

  7. Robert Taggart says:

    Can no one challenge Cameo ? – for the ‘top job’ ?
    Cameo needs to win some ‘brownie points’ – easily done – support and enact the Winsor Police Reform proposals.

  8. anon says:

    I was living in Canada when Prime Minister Trudeau uttered the famous “F—” word . I believe it was in the House of Commons. Probably in exasperation at some comment made by the opposition.

    Of course there was an outcry but the result of it all was that a new word was spawned nationally. “Fuddle duddle ” became used instead of the former”F___” it became a national joke.but it reduced the use of offensive language.

    Canadians used it and smiled.

  9. Andrew Dundas says:

    It’s interesting – isn’t it – that none of our valiant Scottish Media challenged Salmond’s extraordinary claim that he had reliable legal advice that Scotland, if separated from the UK, would be an automatic full EU State on the same terms as the UK. Especially, the UK’s exemption from the signing up to full economic & monetary union.
    Only a Scottish MEP – Catherine Stihler – challenged that preposterous claim. And now we’re learning that it was all lies. (Or gross distortion).
    What’s the point of the Scottish media if they’re struck dumb about key issues?
    Well done Catherine! You’ve shewn up the fat fool. And the dumb-struck Scottish Media.

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