British PM falls out with media, like doomed predecessor

3rd October 2009, Comments 0 comments

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's relations with Britain's notoriously aggressive media hit an all-time low this week, recalling for some the way the press abandoned one of his doomed predecessors.

London - Prime Minister Gordon Brown's relations with Britain's notoriously aggressive media hit an all-time low this week, recalling for some the way the press abandoned one of his doomed predecessors.

An angry Brown, facing polls suggesting he has little or no hope of winning elections due by next June, repeatedly showed his exasperation with interviewers at his Labour Party's annual conference.

The tone was set on the first day of the conference in Brighton, when Brown bristled at being asked whether he was on prescription painkillers, or going blind, by a senior BBC presenter.

"I think this is the sort of questioning which is all too often entering the lexicon of British politics," he retorted sharply to Andrew Marr, who was conducting the big set-piece interview as Labour's meeting started.

By the end of the week, Brown pulled the earpiece out and tried to leave while still on camera in another interview, at one point accusing his Sky News questioner of sounding like a "political propagandist."

But the worst blow of the conference season was the announcement by the tabloid Sun, Britain's biggest-selling daily, that it was switching its allegiance from Labour to the opposition Conservatives.

Since 1970 the Sun, with a daily circulation of 2.9 million, has always supported the eventual winner of every election. It switched from the Tories to back Tony Blair when he swept to power with his rebranded New Labour in 1997.

The newspaper maintained its support for Labour in the 2001 and 2005 elections, in which Blair led his party to re-election.

Its decision to abandon Labour comes two years after Brown succeeded Blair, in what some have seen as a parallel with former Tory premier John Major, who lost the media's support after succeeding Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

"Like John Major before him, he is now a leader at war with those who report him," said Benedict Brogan of the conservative Daily Telegraph, saying the Sun move "marks the final collapse of relations between New Labour and the media."

With elections due by next June, Brown faces a fate similar to that suffered by Major, who became the target of increasingly personal press criticism in the run-up to his humiliating defeat in 1997.

Media-savvy Blair, at ease with the cameras and riding high on a huge parliamentary majority, was helped by his high-profile communications chief Alastair Campbell.

A former tabloid journalist himself, Campbell was renowned for his tongue-lashings of reporters he did not like, but above all for his news management including judicious leaks to favoured correspondents.

When Brown took over at 10 Downing Street in June 2007, he promised to replace style with substance, and he certainly impressed many at first with his firm handling of foiled car bomb attacks days after he took office, followed by a foot-and-mouth scare and floods.

But an atrociously mismanaged leak of plans to hold a snap election, called off and denied at the last minute, suggested that Downing Street had lost its grip on the media machine.

On a personal level too, journalists complained about Brown's lack of charm in interviews, and propensity totally to ignore -- even more blatantly than most politicians -- questions he did not want to answer.

The media was ready to take revenge on the "spin doctors" who had manipulated them for so long.

"The British media is a very big kind of wolf pack... they tend to have a very homogeneous view," said Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics (LSE).

"They have uniformly written off Gordon Brown, and uniformly written off the Labour Party," he added.

After Labour was defeated in the 1992 election, the Sun famously splashed with the front page headline: "It's the Sun wot won it."

But Campbell -- like another spin-meister, Labour minister Peter Mandelson -- insisted this week that in the Internet age, one single newspaper can no longer have that kind of influence.

"As channels of communication have become more diverse and diffuse, it has been harder for the papers to make impact," he said.

"As for genuine political impact, it is likely to be less than they think. If Labour lose, it will not be the Sun wot lost it."

Cyril Belaud/AFP/Expatica

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