John Lanchester · The Lib Dems and the Press
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the Tory press’s onslaught on Nick Clegg over the last couple of days. One minute, the Lib Dems can’t get in the news, no matter what they do; the next minute, they’re notorious cat-stranglers. No, it’s even worse: they’re (gasp!) partly foreign! Well, sort of – Dutch mother, Russian grandfather, Spanish wife. ‘Is anything about this man British?’ yowled the Mail. It seemed a self-defeating way of putting it, since the answer is yes – he is.
The Torygraph followed up today with a thinnish-feeling item about donor’s cheques being routed through Clegg's personal accounts on their way to a researcher. This sounded more chaotic than anything else, and oversold by the paper’s coverage. The Mail returned to the fray with a story about a ‘Nazi slur’: translated out of Mail-speak, that meant Clegg had somewhere said people in Britain go on about the war a bit too much. That’s one of those thunderingly self-evident truths that no one in public life is allowed to say; I’m beginning to really warm to Thick Nick. Even the Guardian had a go, comparing his background with Cameron’s to plug the line that the two men are a very similar type of super-entitled clever public schoolboy who went into politics because they had such good connections.
The pile-on has a number of simple explanations. One is narrative arc: he’s gone up, it’s time for him to come down. Being the people who pull him down gives the papers power, and they like that.
On the right, though, the problem is much more acute. David Yelland, former editor of the Sun, wrote a candid piece about this for the Guardian. Murdoch has no ties to the Lib Dems, never makes any attempt to cultivate them, and has no ‘in’ with the party. Yelland:
Just imagine the scene in many of our national newspaper newsrooms on the morning a Lib-Lab vote has kept the Tories out of office. "Who knows Clegg?" they would say.
There would be a resounding silence.
"Who can put in a call to Gordon?" another would cry.
You would hear a pin drop on the editorial floor.
The fact is these papers, and others, decided months ago that Cameron was going to win. They are now invested in his victory in the most undemocratic fashion.
If that became more widely known, it would win quite a few votes for Clegg. The other papers are in a similar position: no one bothers to cultivate the Lib Dems and therefore the party doesn’t owe anything to anybody in the press.