Wednesday 21 May 2003

Press ganged

Blair's tragedy is that, in the end, it is Murdoch, Rothermere and Black who write British history, not he.

by Polly Toynbee

Who runs the country? The rightwing press is now overreaching itself beyond anything seen in recent times. Its preposterous presumption might be funny if it weren't so damaging. The raucous bullying of the rightwing press barons for a referendum on an as yet unformulated new EU constitution is a flagrant challenge to the democratic authority of the government.

Yesterday the Daily Mail, with grotesque portentousness, announced "in an exercise unprecedented in newspaper history", June 9 will be "the day the Daily Mail will be conducting its historic national referendum on the EU constitution, a device that will sweep away 1,000 years of history." This crude usurpation will create "thousands and thousands of polling stations," with votes "scrutinised over the following weekend," to stop the EU taking as yet unspecified, "sweeping powers over huge swaths of national life". The Electoral Reform Society, scrutineer for all authentic ballots, refused to have anything to do with it: "It's just petition gathering," it says. But so what? The demagogues will get whatever whopping majority they want, never mind scrutiny.

Over at the Telegraph, Conrad Black took to print himself to demand a referendum - almost unknown behaviour for a proprietor. The Telegraph recently made a hefty donation to the Conservative party - also a curiosity for a newspaper. The Murdoch press is shoulder to shoulder: the Sun runs a telephone poll to Save our Country against "the biggest betrayal in our history" while the Times obeys its owner with a little more finesse, liking to flirt with Blair, but "democracy is at stake" it warns. A plaintive Jack Straw bleated: "The British public deserves a higher level of debate than this." Indeed - but when did his government try to do anything about it? (Instead they are trying to appease Murdoch by giving him Channel 5 in the current broadcasting bill).

All this is still a non-issue with the public. Despite the bellowing press, yesterday's Guardian ICM poll showed that 81% of the people had never heard of the proposed new EU constitution. (Why have the BBC taken up the referendum issue when it is so far an entirely phony press story?) There is nothing to vote on as yet, nor are any other countries signed up to a referendum yet. In negotiations the prime minister is demanding most of what the enemy press wants anyway: no use of the word federal, no shared tax or social security systems, no charter of fundamental rights, national parliaments still able to veto EU proposals. But even if and probably when Tony Blair gets his way, that will make no difference. It doesn't matter what is in it. What the europhobic press wants is a referendum so it can fight for a "no" vote which could lead to Britain's eventual exit, as it always wanted: it may never happen, but now it sees a shimmer on the horizon.

The profoundly dysfunctional British press, over 75% controlled by three rightwing men, has the bit between its teeth, setting the agenda for the nation's political discourse. The nuanced, conditional support of Labour's critical friends - the Guardian, FT and Independent - is no counterweight, with the Mirror wildly erratic. Without a plausible party of their own (canny bullies never champion a loser like Duncan Smith) Tory proprietors have become a surrogate party. They cannot win an election, but they can demolish all trust and hope in Labour. They can lie, destroy and spread unrelenting mendacity, meaning fewer people vote and all mistrust politics.

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