A very rare sighting today – a Daily Mirror editorial in support of a Tory Minister. What could be the issue that gets my old paper supporting Michael Gove?
The answer is the press, and his remarkable calling into question of the very existence of the Leveson Inquiry which, ludicrously, he says is having a ‘chilling’ effect on freedom of expression (particularly ludicrous in the week Rupert Murdoch gives birth to the son/sun of the News of the World).
Gove is one of the few ministers who gets a reasonable press across the board, partly because he was potty right wing ideas for State schools praised to the rafters by editors and leader writers who use private schools, but also because he has never severed his links with his old paymasters at Wapping, and is to a large extent the press’s representative in Cabinet.
But to go to a Commons press gallery lunch, with the specific purpose of attacking the Leveson Inquiry, takes to a new height, or rather depth, the art of ministerial sucking up to your audience so they all purr nicely as they listen to what they want to hear.
However, there is a deeper game here, one I alluded to on Question Time recently, and which I detected having bumped into a couple of Tory ministers who made perfectly clear to me that they had no appetite for major changes in press regulation, and the battering from newspapers that might result.
There is no way in the world Gove would have made yesterday’s intervention without David Cameron’s knowledge and approval. If he did, then Number 10 is incompetent. If however it was agreed in advance, then it is clear that far from Gove being a freelance rogue minister, he is the latest plank of a strategy.
The government set up Leveson because the stench from phone-hacking had become too strong, and Cameron needed something to create a bigger gap between him and his most ill-advised hire, Andy Coulson. It is also worth remembering that they did so having spent months effectively colluding with newspaper groups and police denying the full extent of a problem (just as Gove is doing again now).
But when it comes to the next election, the Tories want the press to be as supportive and supine as they were in the Thatcher days when she was handing out peerages and knighthoods according to the extent of media slavishness shown by individual papers and editors.
Leveson is asking the right questions and his inquiry has already seen and heard many reasons why a new and tougher system of regulation has to be brought in.
But with Gove now effectively a spokesman for his old boss Rupert Murdoch, and Cameron and George Osborne calculating the best way to get the media onside come the next election, the Tories in the Cabinet will do all they can do appear on the side of the press rather than the public interest they are supposed to represent.
The problem with Gove’s intervention is that it lacked any subtlety at all. It was effectively a full frontal attack on an inquiry set up by his boss. Unless the said boss makes clear he disagrees, then we have to assume the strategy is coming from Downing Street.
The press always try to dress their own excesses and cultural depravity in arguments about freedom of speech. But they have had too many drinks in the last chance saloon. The fact that the Tories in the Cabinet want to give them another one suggests that if they get their way, a once in a generation opportunity to raise press standards is going to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Again.
Far be it from me to advise Lord Justice Leveson on how to do his business, but he might think about a private letter to the PM asking if ministers have been given free rein to undermine him as he seeks to answer the questions about the press he was asked by the Prime Minister to explore. Cameron might have some difficulty drafting the answer.