Robin Brown

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A very British coup

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I speak not of Gordon Brown’s parting shot in the 2010 election – his pledge to resign to facilitate a deal between the Liberal Democrats and Labour – but of the extraordinary reaction by the Tory press to the news today.

If Brown thought he had endured the worst the assembled frothing, tweeded, spluttering, luv-a-duck rent-a-mob of assembled gobshites and nutcases had to throw at him, he was wrong.

Throughout the last couple of weeks, and through various twists and turns, one thing has become clear. The assembled weight of the media has been thrown well and truly behind Cameron and the Tories to almost unimaginable proportions.

The Tory press today suggested that no less than a coup was being perpetrated right under the noses of British subjects, and appears to be calling for its own in return.

What else to make of the claims that Brown is perpetuating a ‘sordid’ coup; or that Clegg has behaved ‘treacherously’?

Yesterday, says the Mail, was a ‘squalid day for democracy’. Inside, Richard Littlejohn railed against ‘nothing less than an attempted coup’, a ‘cynical putsch’ and a ‘naked power grab’.

He went on to state that Brown might as well have ‘ordered the tanks to roll down Whitehall and train their guns on the meeting of the Parliamentary Conservative Party’.

If he pulls off a Lib-Lab coalition, ‘democracy as we have known it in Britain will be shattered – possibly beyond repair’.

Astonishingly, Littlejohn even dares to have a pop at the ‘desperate Labour propaganda sheets’, while taking a pot-shot at the ‘the State broadcaster, the BBC’ for broadcasting lies about the Conservative party, the true hallmark of all swivel-eyed columnists.

To my mind, all of this goes well beyond anything the Tory press has managed before. The sheer brass neck, the hypocrisy, and the deliberate ignorance of parliamentary process. The right-wing press seems to have lost its grasp of the facts at hand.

The electoral system that they all back has produced a hung parliament, the mess that is responsible for all this back-room chicanery, but they want to keep it. (Note to Kay Burley: People did not ‘vote for a hung parliament’).

Brown, constitutionally, has the first right to try and form government, but allowed Clegg and Cameron to have the first shot at it, despite the resulting power vacuum.

The Conservative Party did not win the election. Combined, the Labour-Lib Dem share of the vote dwarfs the Tory share of the vote. Combined, Lib-Lab seats would eclipse Tory seats.

British politics in the 20th century is littered with unelected Prime Ministers, mostly Tory, as would be the case under a new Labour leader in a progressive coalition.

This is how hung parliaments work, this is how our electoral system works, this is how the constitution works. This is how politics works.

I’m personally dubious that a Lib-Lab coalition is the right result to come out of this election, but I’m not clear on what is the right result. No-one, to my mind, has a mandate. There is no victor.

But a Lib-Lab coalition would be perfectly constitutional and perfectly reasonable. It would be no more of a coup than a minority Tory government or a Lib-Con coalition, which is to say that it would be none at all.

The irony is, in complaining about Brown’s final act constituting nothing more than a ‘coup’- with all the talk about ‘treachery’ and ‘sordid’ politicking – the right-wing press appears to be calling for nothing less itself.

In a more fractious political, social or economic landscape, the language and tone deployed by tabloid editors and columnists across London screaming for Brown’s head could be explosive – and horribly irresponsible.

As it is, despite all the promises that the markets would not tolerate a hung parliament and that people would be burned to death on the streets, subsequently proved to be baseless, the press just looks like a spoiled child denied its way.

Brown may be affording himself a smile.

Election Day front pages: A predictable roll-call of shame

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As if there were ever any doubt. Today’s front pages from the right-wing newspapers manage to stretch credulity, taste, truth and decency.

It’s in every newspaper editor’s best interests to pick a winning candidate, to maintain the assumption that newspapers are important in deciding the outcome of elections. The option is to buck against that trend to my going off-kilter, like the Guardian this time around, or dig in with sheer bloody-mindedness, like the Daily Mirror.

As expected, there’s the usual roll call of shame from the right-wing tabloids – ranging from the sheer brass neck and wrong-headedness of the Sun’s Obama rip of Cameron to the implication on the front of the Daily Mail that not voting for David Cameron will mean people being burned to death on the streets of the UK.

The Sun’s is by far the most noteworthy, because whoever greenlit that one – presumably bizarre/Bizarre man Dominic Mohan, currently, baffling the editor – has got it so wrong it beggars belief.

Why? Because very few Sun readers will get the reference. Because even the staunchest Tory will not believe the an ideology-free zone like Cameron will really bring anything new to the table. Because the whole thing is an insult to politics, to design, to typography, to paper. It’s truly abysmal.

I expected a typical Sun piece of crap, like Brown’s face in a haggis and GORDON CLOWN wirtten across the top. The sort of childish rubbish we’re apparently all expected to think is hilarious. But the Sun wrongfooted me, by being even worse.

The Mail’s is more insidious, and says much more about the paper’s relationship with its readership. There’s a clear insinuation that unless Cameron gets a strong enough mandate and starts cutting the deficit we’ll all be going to Hell in a handbasket, which uses a picture of someone actually on fire to try and frighten people into following its line. Which pretty much sums up the Mail.

The Express is more prosaic, ramming its message into the sheep-like minds of its readers. Vote Cameron, Brown a disaster, hung parliament a disaster. It’s only a surprise there’s no mention of cancer or Diana in there somewhere. It can barely be thought of as a newspaper any more.

The Telegraph dutifully falls into line with the Tory ‘hope over fear’ nonsense.

The Times is, on the face of it, restrained. There’s even quite a good cartoon, and the whole thing smacks of gravitas. But we all know that the editorial line of the Times is fatally compromised.

The truth is, they’re all compromised. By the lines forced on them by proprietors, by the need to pander to readerships, by the need to achieve a pay-off on back-room deals with media moguls.

This election has been the worst I can remember as far as the right-wing press goes, through their naked partisanship and by neglecting their greater roles as educators and informers.

Things have come to such a head that popular protests against the press were held a week ago. Laura Oliver, on argues that new media may need to fill the objective void left by a partisan media.

The Guardian and Indie have chosen a meek ‘need for PR’ line, which will probably serve well to split the vote. Only the Mirror has come out with any fire in its belly, with a picture of Cameron in his Bullingdon attire.

I think it’s a powerful front page, and there will be some interesting discussions as to where the rights to that image may lie in the future – public domain, public interest? – but it’s still the old tribal drum-beat.

I suppose that an editorial line borne of ideology isn’t really as offensive as one for naked commercial gain, but looking at the selection of paper this morning I just felt depressed.

Depressed that it’s come to this; depressed for the parlous state of journalism in the UK; depressed at the hate and fear-mongering.

The 2010 general election: A willfully stupid, mendacious and depressing election.

Wot will win the 2010 election?

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There’s been something awful about this election, beyond the stuff that’s usually awful about elections.

Alongside how utterly hopeless the media at large have been in actually reporting the issues – as opposed to some things David Cameron has said, some suits Nick Clegg has worn and some mistakes Gordon Brown has made – there’s been the most naked display of vested interests for nearly 20 years.

The likes of The Mail and The Express adopt frothingly bigoted political lines because it’s what helps them sell papers, and it reflects the unpleasant ideologies of their respective owners.

The Torygraph backs the Conservatives because it’s read mainly by retired Brigadiers who remember the Boer War. The Star… well, who gives a flying one what the Star thinks eh?

As for The Sun and The Times, well, they back whoever proprietor Rupert Murdoch tells them to back, based on various deals with whichever party he reckons will win the election and deliver the goods.

This time around it’s barely even a secret that Murdoch, or rather his son James, wants to open a new front against the BBC, and has promised David Cameron his backing in exchange for crippling the Beeb.

The Sun always makes a big deal of wanting to look like its support is the deciding factor in an election campaign, but in reality Murdoch backs whoever he calculates is most likely to win.

In years gone by, back to 1997 and throughout the 80s, this was fairly easy to predict. The only recent blip was 1992, where the Sun pulled out all of the stops to virtually suggest that Neil Kinnock was insane.

‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It,’ gloated the Scum, so we know who to thanks for the following five years of the dross from John Major’s crumbling government.

’92 is an election regularly debated by students of psephology – a smart word for voting behaviour – because all the polls suggested that Labour would win. Could it have been the rabidly hostile Tory press than won it for Major? Tough to say, but I’ve never been in doubt as to the potential power of the media in politics.

One need only look at the last 18 months of absolute slating Gordon Brown – like Major, a decent man – has endured from the Sun, Mail and Telegraph; the results of which are that most people in the country now despise him without actually knowing why.

Anyway, 2010 should provide another clue as to the power of the media in elections because, having backed Cameron, the Murdoch press now faces the possibility of their man not actually winning. What will that do for the Sun’s habit of picking a winner? Or Murdoch’s latest ambitions?

The palpable desperation emanating from the front pages of the Sun recently has been almost pitiful, culminating in today’s risible front cover where Simon F’in Cowell appears to give his support to Cameron.

Delve inside the paper (if you can bear to) and you’ll find article after article telling us how much Sun readers love Cameron, and how a hung parliament will mean that Britain will fall into a volcano. Except, that’s not what Sun readers voting in polls on the online version have been saying.

Malcolm Coles has shown as much with some number-crunching on Sun polls, which show that its readers believe that Clegg won the third debate; Sun readers aren’t fussed about a hung parliament; and that a poll apparently showing Mums to be swinging behind Cameron shows nothing of the sort.

The Sun has gone into Cameron overdrive, barely stopping short of suggesting that WebCameron’s cock is bigger than Brown’s and Clegg’s put together, and offering a kind of non-stop tabloid blowjob to the Photoshopped Tory leader.

The rise of Clegg has also sent shivers down the spine at News International, so a full-scale assault was subsequently launched on the Lib Dems.

Unlike the US, where Fox News is basically a propaganda arm for the lunatic US right wing, the UK broadcast media is bound by strict rules of impartiality. Bad news for Murdoch Junior, who wants to extend Sky into a kind of Death Star of the media.

But this election campaign has brought the first whispers that Sky’s news coverage has not appeared to be quite as straight down the line as it should. And David Cameron has appeared to suggest that broadcasting regulations may need an overhaul. What can it all mean?

People have told me that Murdoch Senior is actually fairly left-of-centre, as far as his personal politics are concerned. What’s more he’s fairly friendly with Brown, and hit it off big style with Tony.

But Murdoch doesn’t let politics get in the way of business, and having been persuaded by son James to back Cameron, has had to throw the combined News International weight behind Cameron and the Tories.

What will happen? For the first time since 1992 I have no idea, as far as the election goes. As for the press, it’s been fascinating to see the Sun frantically attempting to shore up its man, knowing that its reputation is at stake. Indeed, the FT suggests that the Sun’s backing for Cameron has had the opposite effect.

A defeat for Cameron may mean that the rise of multimedia and the web has neutered the power of the papers in this regard, and with it the power of print media barons.

A win could open up a new front in partisan media, via Sky News and the humbling of the BBC, because Murdoch’s help won’t come without strings. Then, maybe, it won’t be the Sun wot wins it in the future, but the Sky.

That TV leader debate reporting in full

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After the rollercoaster thrill ride of three men disagreeing with each other and an off-camera man occasionally shouting, I’ve compiled this exhaustive list of newspaper and website coverage taking place both during the debate and over the next 24 hours.

• Debate clearly won by Gordon Brown, David Cameron or Nick Clegg

• Tiresome analysis of clothes worn by three candidates

• Article on Richard Nixon / JFK Presidential debate

• Infographic making inexplicable use of shapes in three primary colours

• Daily Mail picture of Gordon Brown looking sweaty

• Analysis of various ‘blunders’ by three party leaders

• Composite images of three leaders with mouths open

• Tiresome ‘Have Your Say’ section with numbingly tedious and/or ill-informed user-generated content

• Hopelessly unfunny sketch by Simon Hoggart/Rod Liddle/Amanda Platell

• Shit Sun mock-up of Gordon Brown looking like Compo from Last of the Summer Wine

• Dull profile of Alistair Stewart

• Live blog from short-straw reporter in pub in Hartlepool

• Millions of links to Twitter feeds churning out pointless quotes

• C4 blog by Jon Snow’s tie on what Brown, Cameron and Clegg were drinking backstage

• Swing-o-meter-style mock-up based on how many times each man says ‘change’.

• Live panel quizzed throughout debate consisting of white-van driving racist, muesli-eating hippie and boring middle-aged woman

• Plaintive whinge from Alex Salmond, live from reactor building in Dounreay

Now with added Clegg!

It’s a week later, and I deliberately spent the night cycling, editing photos and watching cricket. Anything really to avoid the dreaded leader’s debate and the ensuing media volcanic ash torrent of drivel. If you did too, here’s what you missed.

• Lots of articles and reports about end of two-party hegemony

• Right-wing press fall in line to paint Clegg as nutter/shirker/gay/gyppo/foreigner-loving liberal who is, quite possibly, a maniac

• Some of the broadcast media inexplicably start reporting rumours they’ve heard about Nick Clegg from hostile briefings

• Someone from Keane backs Nick Clegg

• Lib Dem supporters wonder how much further ahead they’d be with Charles Kennedy

• DPS Observer interview with Vince Cable called ‘The man who would be King’, trailed with front page lead headlined ‘Cable to bring City to heel’

• Marina Hyde writes shit sketch about how she fancies Vince Cable. Called The Cable Guy.

• Sue Malone writes poisonous article about Miriam González Durántez’s wardrobe

• Scratchy radio interview with Paddy Ashdown, saying how great Clegg is, and what a bastard Tony Blair is

• The Sun mocks up a shit photo of Nick Clegg heading down a hill in a tin bath.

Written by Robin Brown

April 15th, 2010 at 10:58 pm

When the public interest and media interest coincide

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It was with no sense of satisfaction today that I scanned the morning’s front pages to a sea of blurry Jon Venables shots, but it was proof that the tabloids are scenting blood over the man’s return to prison.

The Mirror reports that Venables has been returned to prison for fighting at work and that he has been struggling with drug use for some time – shamefully for a Labour paper relegating the death of Michael Foot to a masthead boxout – and apparently breaking the worldwide injunction that prohibits any reporting on Venables or Robert Thompson.

The details, vague though they are, are clearly sufficient to allow dozens of people to confidently guess Venables’ assumed identity – which obviously poses significant problems for Venables, the probation service, the police, prisons, the Ministry of Justice and dozens of other auxiliary services.

This is presumably why Jack Straw was so determined not to allow this to come to light. At best, Venables requires a whole new identity and cover story somewhere else in the country, or spends the rest of his life in prison with a round-the-clock guard. Or, more simply, someone murders him.

I’ve been considering how the public interest has been served by these revelations coming to light. In what way are we enlightened, I wonder. What’s the benefit to society in these details being brought to light?

It’s fascinating trying to watch the newspapers maintain some sort of moral high ground on this issue while exploiting the grief of Denise Fergus to sell some more papers.

In today’s Sun, we’re told of the ‘Bulger Case Outrage’? What ‘outrage’ is that exactly? The manufactured outrage of tabloid editors denied the opportunity to make another meal of a genuine human tragedy?

It’s an unfortunate – or is fortunate? – coincidence that the outing of criminals as part of serving the greater good dovetails so smoothly with the media imperative to sell copy.

Who’s to say what the real reason behind the Venables muck-raking is? Every newspaper editor will point to the former, explain that it is a duty of the media to reassure society. Whichever way you paint it I can’t see the moral justification in the howls of anger over the government’s refusal to cave in to the papers.

But it won’t stop here – this story has legs now, and we all like to know how a story ends. I’ll save you the bother of actually buying these papers.

In a few days time, following a tidal wave on unrelenting pressure from the papers, reflected and intensified by other mainstream media, spread far and wide by social media, which will in turn be re-reported by the tabloids, people will start coming forward with stories to sell.

Some time next week one of the papers – probably the Sun – will get recent pictures of Venables and decide, on balance, that the legal risk is worth taking, arguing that to do so is in the public interest. Then the rest will follow suit.

The public interest will have been served. Paper sales and website traffic will increase accordingly. Some hack will win a self-congratulatory ‘Scoop of the Year’ award.

It remains to be seen what happens to Venables. At best, a life of looking over his shoulder. At worst… well, we know the worst.

I genuinely wonder if, at any point, those in the media demanding to know these details have ever thought beyond the scope of ‘public interest’ and considered the high stakes of this game. That convenient public interest defence can cover a multitude of sins.

Written by Robin Brown

March 4th, 2010 at 3:28 pm

The Sun drops Labour, but there are wider issues at stake

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Idiot comic The Sun has unsurprisingly switched its allegiance to the Conservatives, having declared that the Labour government has ‘lost its way’.

This supposed revelation is as unsurprising as its timing – immediately following Gordon Brown’s rallying cry to the Labour faithful at the Labour conference.

In a clear lie the Sun’s political editor, George Pascoe-Watson, stated that the announcement was not scheduled to cause maximum political damage. That’s absurd in itself, but also because no-one really believes a lowly tabloid political editor would be allowed to make a decision like this.

The clear originator is Rupert Murdoch, who can spot a trend when he sees one. Psephologists have long argued about the impact the media has one voting behaviour. To my mind it once did, but I don’t think that anything as explicit as people obeying newspapers on election days rings true any more. Class dealignment, party dealignment, paper dealignment.

Murdoch probably knows that, which is why he’s unwilling to lose face by backing Labour – a long shot at best – at the next election. That way the idea that the Sun is the prime mover in an election victory can be maintained.

In doing so Murdoch can also leverage his fearsome media arsenal against David Cameron if he so chooses. Murmurs from the Tories regarding the BBC will not have gone unnoticed, and Murdoch can probably rub his hands in glee at the prospect of another chunk of media real estate becoming available to News International.

This raises the prospect of a British Fox News, based on the American version that delights in spouting bigotry in every form. Such broadcast channels are currently outlawed in the UK, but Cameron has already indicated that he wouldn’t obstruct them as Prime Minister.

It’s here that I think the media still has a strong influence on thinking and behaviors, the insidious drip-drip that may not explicitly back politicians or parties, but steadily reinforces right-wing values by broadcasting ignorance, fear and intolerance.

Couple that to a neutered BBC and a media landscape that could also be missing the Indie and the Observer by next year and it’s a grim prospect for a healthy Fourth Estate.

Written by Robin Brown

September 30th, 2009 at 1:35 pm


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I don’t know why people like James Murdoch, and his father before him, are invited to give MacTaggart lectures – it’s not as if anyone is going to hear anything they didn’t expect to.

Rather like a left-winger reaching vicariously for a Sun or Express in a hotel lobby room to experience the frisson of outrage, or Mary Whitehouse reaching for a Razzle, the Edinburgh media scrum seems to take great delight in a bout of extended self-flagellation.

Well, half of them do. As we already know the other half have it in for the BBC for a variety of corporate, ideological or score-settling issues.

It’s easy to see why. As digital platforms have rolled out, the BBC has kept pace. In 20 years it’s gone from under ten national radio and TV channels to a vast multimedia empire. And it’s likely to continue growing – that is, essentially, its remit – at least as far as its news coverage is concerned.

This threatens a lot of people, myself included to a degree, as it raises a number of questions about the reach of the BBC and its effect on the journalism and media market. How can news platforms make money from their news services when the Beeb does it all for free?

There’s an important issue to be addressed there but this growing, if fairly limited, base of unease about the expansion of the BBC has been recently used by a number of critics to take a pot-shot at the organisation.

Much of these can be tracked down to self-interest. Other media groups such as the Guardian Media Group, Associated Newspapers and News International have their own interests to safeguard. They often post fairly wild attacks on the Beeb for its ‘land-grab’ expansion – a subtly pejorative term that has been reinforced again and again.

James Murdoch used it at the weekend, along with the following references and terms:

[The UK is] it’s the Addams family of world media

The land grab is spear-headed by the BBC. The scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling.

state-sponsored journalism

state-sponsored news


[On the one hand] authoritarianism: endless intervention, regulation and control.

[For them] the abolition of media boundaries is a trumpet call to expansion: to do more, regulate more, control more.

Sixty years ago George Orwell published 1984. Its message is more relevant now than ever.
As Orwell foretold, to let the state enjoy a near-monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion.

It’s a rather faux-intellectual sixth-form style diatribe against regulation in all of its forms and the Beeb and Ofcom in particular. It flirts with some important points, but all of this is lost in the hyperbole and off-kilter references.

There’s a rather bizarre passage that compares the BBC to creationism, which then segues into another half-witted metaphor about bananas and the redundancy of regulation. This, naturally leads to ‘state-sponsored news’ – a deliberately misleading titbit thrown to the kind of right-wing loons who think the NHS is trying to kill them.

The message is clear – not only does regulation not work, it’s actively evil. What the world needs is unfettered free-market capitalism, in broadcasting as well as banking (although, of course, Murdoch didn’t mention Sky’s utter domination of pretty much ever significant sporting event in the UK following the government’s craven deregulation of that market).

Thankfully on hand to take Murdoch to task over this untimely assertion over free markets was BBC credit crunch boffin Robert Peston, who pointed out that deregulation in economic sectors recently landed us with the worst recession in 80 years.

Murdoch’s attack reminds me of the smear politics of the American right – beginning a discourse with an attack so hysterical and out-there that it drags the tone and battleground of the following debate in the attacker’s favour.

Murdoch’s attack will launch a new broadside against the organisation, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that there’s a general election next year, during which Gordon Brown and WebCameron will be hoping for some help from the Sun.

So, gear up for some serious Auntie bashing from the usual suspects over the next few weeks, indeed the next year.

Gear up for free-marketeers pushing the monopoly line; hand-wringing articles from The Grauniad about how a pay-for-content platform can work while the Beeb is offering it for free; and ideological attacks from various lunatics seizing on Murdoch’s provocative (and deliberate) accusations about state-sponsored news and Orwellian organisations.

The death-by-1000-cuts assault has begun. Yes they’ve been much more sober and considered than Murdoch’s, but a variety of big beasts have decided that now is the time to voice their opinions that the BBC would be much better if ‘slimmed down’ and focussed on ‘core values’.

This is the start of a concerted effort to neuter the Beeb as a commercial threat, designed to cripple it as a news and broadcasting organisation.

The BBC has a big part to play in organising its own defence, and needs to come out fighting, reminding people of its value and important role in British culture. And it also needs to drop its bums-on-seats approach that has led to the arms race with ITV and SKy over big events, big-name signings and stupid paychecks.

But it also needs to address issues pertaining to its use of the licence fee to fund operations that clash with existing commercial ones and re-orientating itself in the digital world in a way that does not impinge unnecessarily on private enterprise.

Those supporting the Beeb need only look to how successful social media was in correcting and combatting slurs about the NHS. Despite their faults, I love the NHS, and I love the BBC too.

• Full MacTaggart text here:

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