It’s the narrative, stupid: Get Clegg!

By Simon Barrow
April 22, 2010

The tabloid and Telegraph assault on Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg this morning is a rallying cry - in what will be a sustained counter-insurgency against making this General Election a key moment in breaking open an unfair, monopolistic and archaic political system in Britain.

Of course it is not the first time, and it will not be the last, that the Mail, the Express, the Sun and the Telegraph have indulged in scare and smear tactics. Which is why it is important to look beyond the immediate distaste to what it is about politically, in context.

First the distaste. Quite rightly, the blogosphere, the twitterverse and the social media generally have been full of people declaring “I’m not a Liberal Democrat… but this disgusts me” in response to today’s headlines. (Tory Iain Dale and Labour's Sally Bercow are among those who have spoken out.) Let me add my voice to that category of people – and a note about the pusillanimous response of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ this morning.

The Telegraph has run a story entitled ’Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem donors and payments into his private bank account’ (gleefully recycled as ’Lib Dem donors paid money into Clegg's personal account?’ by the likes of Citywire, with no further scrutiny). This is implying and insinuating – with no substantial evidence, and contrary to what looks like a pretty reasonable explanation – dodgy dealings and shady connections. Only the word “corruption” fails to occur.

Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun was predictably even less nuanced this morning. He said the Liberal Democrats were “living on the proceeds of crime.” That’s a pretty serious allegation – to put it mildly. What would be the reaction if it was made against the PM or leader of the main opposition, or indeed another high profile organisation or public figure? It was not challenged. I wrote to the tweetmaster at Today, suggesting this might be important enough for them to record. They didn’t. Instead, they tweeted: The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh: “The scrutiny of the Liberal Democrats is totally legitimate... and is revealing things even I didn't know.” Rather as Fox News would have? You decide.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail turned a 2002 Clegg article in the Guardian that suggested ’Britain is still stuck in a childish rut of anti-German prejudice’ into ’Clegg in Nazi slur on UK’.

For measure, the Express had as its front page the rather more (for them) orthodox ’Nick Clegg's crazy immigration policy’, perhaps as a prelim to "Clegg wants to fast track visas for Nazi war criminals"… while The Sun struck a more considered tone with "Clegg on his face" – rolling in "sleaze allegation", migrants and the Lib Dem supremo leaving the country defenceless by concurring with a bunch of generals that a one-for-one Trident replacement may be unnecessary and wasteful. Except that they forgot to mention the generals.

Fairly standard right-wing tabloid tactics, you might think. And you’d be right. But the timing, on the day of the second TV Leaders’ debate, (Sky, BBC4, R4 at 8pm, BBC2 11.30pm) is as significant as it is unsubtle.

The reality is that the arch-defenders of the political status quo, most of whom have a great deal of money and power at stake and do not want to see a more open and responsive democracy that is able to question them, are worried silly that the 2010 General Election just might signal the beginning of the end of the system we have known and (some of us) been excluded by. So there is a massive backlash, and it is only just beginning.

As ever, “it’s the narrative, stupid”. And the narrative will likely go something like this at around 9.30pm this evening (though many of the stories are being written in draft right now, hours ahead of the debate, I’ll wager). Nick Clegg has blown it. He’s been exposed. He’s failed. He’s irresponsible… and so on. There will be some phrase or argument tonight which will be used to hang those assertions on: if you want to find one, you will. Just ignore context, fact or anything else that might get in the way of ‘the story’.

Next, there will be a dip in the (probably inflated) poll data for the Lib Dems, not to mention a dip in the (certainly ludicrously inflated) media froth about Clegg being “more popular than Churchill”. This will suddenly become a ‘bust bubble’, a ‘crash’. The voters will have ‘seen through’ the third party, and everyone will be ‘coming to their senses’ as they realise that the ‘only real choice’ is between the big two.

Meanwhile, a balanced ‘hung’ parliament will not only bring bankruptcy and the IMF to Britain’s doorstep, but will also hasten climate change, increase divorce and herald the apocalypse, allies of Ken Clarke may well have concluded after further thought.

I’d be happy to be wrong, but something like that kind of swing against Cleggmania seems rather likely.

[23 April: thankfully, I was indeed wrong, at least in the short-term, though the Express and the Mail have since done their best to pour cold water on their failure so far to pull Clegg below the waterline. But watch this space... they won't give up.]

All this matters not because it is a new low in journalism (those occur regularly) – nor because Clegg and the Lib Dems embody our salvation. They do not. Indeed, while often carrying on without any apparent irony as if they were the only pluralists, while dismissing Plaid and the SNP as “two-bit” and “irrelevant” (accusations they have faced themselves), and while doubtless seeking to water down their Trident commitment in the face of a contrary militaristic onslaught, the Lib Dems have annoyed even many of those who might be persuaded to vote for them by their lack of awareness that they are rapidly becoming the establishment they purport to despise.

But that too is not the point. The point is that a Lib Dem surge, plus an increase in votes for the smaller (non-xenophobic, non-racist) parties and independents all makes a hung parliament more likely. And that is a situation in which, in spite of their unwillingness and a possible logjam on some issues, the ‘big three’ can be made to deal on political reform.

It is this that the tabloid writers and their paymasters and allies fear so much. Others will say, go

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