Tuesday, 10 November 2009

How to lose friends and alienate people.

How do you then follow up one of the most petty, vindictive and downright counter-productive attacks on a politician in recent times? The obvious answer, it seems, is to be both even more cynical and underhand than you've already been: wait for the politician, alerted to your news story, to phone the slighted mother to apologise and then get her to record it so you can reproduce the thing in full on your website.

To be fair when the Sun clearly doesn't deserve it, Mrs Janes' claim that she recorded it on the spur of the moment with a friend's BlackBerry could be true. In any case, whether they were personally involved in the recording of the conversation between Gordon Brown and Mrs Janes or not, they must have realised that this was taking the story to a whole other level. It's one thing after all to complain about what you consider to be an insensitive and insulting letter, or indeed to do the equivalent of a Sharron Storer, confronting a politician on the spur of the moment in front of watching television cameras; it's quite another to effectively ambush someone who is quite clearly mortified at the damage he thinks he has done and then to use it against him as part of a campaign.

The transcript of the conversation between Brown and Janes does not make for easy reading. Janes is convinced that her son's life could have been saved if there were more helicopters available, a view she is fully entitled to, but not one that she can actually prove, or be proved without a full coroner's report, which will probably take years considering the current backlog (indeed, we now know that a helicopter was sent after the explosion which ultimately killed Janes). Brown goes out of his way to not argue with her without agreeing with her, and as before, is clearly desperately wishing he wasn't having the conversation. This isn't because he can't face up to the consequences of what he is asking the army to do for him, which clearly affects him hugely, but almost certainly because he knows there is almost nothing he can say that will placate a grieving mother, nor can he think of it while actually in conversation with her. Time, while a healer, also allows for far greater consideration and with it, eloquence, which the prime minister displayed at today's press conference. If he had said during the phone call what he did today to the media, it might just have satisfied Mrs Janes that little bit more. As it was, Brown was right to disagree when she claimed there were 25 spelling mistakes (there were 4 or 5 at most) and that he had spelt both her name and her son's name wrong (unclear on the family name, while he did get his name right, if scruffily). Probably the most instructive lines of all though come towards the end:

GB: Whatever information you've been given, that is not correct. But I don't want to interact in a political debate about this...

JJ: No that's fine. Nor do I.


Whether Mrs Janes did or not at the time, or still does, as a result of handing the Sun the conversation this has become a political debate. As the Heresiarch correctly points out, this isn't about the letter. This is about the fact she has lost her son, with the letter simply being used as a vehicle for her anguish. It just so happens that her belief that the military are being underfunded and betrayed by the politicians is exactly the same one which the Sun holds, or at least pretends to hold. Grief is the motivator, and while money might well have changed hands between the paper and the Mrs Janes, the real issue here is both the exploitation of Mrs Janes for political and personal gain and the low and dirty methods used. Did the prime minister after all imagine that what he must have thought was a confidential and private phone call would be recorded and reproduced in a newspaper, to be used, as yesterday's Sun editorial put it, as evidence of his "underlying disregard for the military"?

If that was the Sun's intention, then it seems to have backfired spectacularly. Yesterday the consensus, across the political spectrum, seemed to be that this was an unpleasant non-story, with some feeling sympathy for Brown. Today that appears to have turned to overwhelming distaste at the reproduction of the conversation, and with even more defending the prime minister even while disliking the man and his policies. Most dangerously for the Sun itself, its own readers at least on the website also seem to be in the majority taking Brown's side, with some even taking pot shots at Mrs Janes herself. This is especially intriguing, as this is hardly the first time the Sun has used grieving parents to demand political change, without them being attacked in the fashion to which Mrs Janes has been by some. Partially this is because of the view of some that those who choose to join the army know the risks of the "job", but it's also because while Sun readers often favour the draconian policies on crime which the paper espouses, they are far more sceptical on Afghanistan, despite the paper's complete support for the war.

Furthermore, the paper's own journalists seem unsure of the attack on Brown which they've launched. The Graun claims that Tom Newton Dunn, the new political editor, having previously been the paper's defence correspondent, wanted the story to put more emphasis on Brown's eyesight with its impact on his handwriting, despite him supposedly being the man who wrote the original report. Even more significant is that Murdoch himself, while obviously supporting the change of support from Labour to the Conservatives, apparently "regrets" it. If he objects to the highly personal turn the criticism has taken, new editor Dominic Mohan will swiftly know about it. It's also curious that despite the high profile the story has taken, that there was no editorial comment today on the interview.

The biggest indictment of the Sun's story though is not just that it has undermined the claim that Brown has "underlying disregard" for the military, that it has so misread the mood of its own readers that they have came out in sympathy with him, but that it has actually deflected the debate away from government strategy on Afghanistan onto the personal and, ultimately, the newspaper itself. This is, as Labour themselves have argued, been a campaign to damage the prime minister, and an unfair one at that. David Cameron might well be concerned with just what kind of partner he has jumped into bed with.

2 comments:

yorksranter said...

Did they inform Brown his call was being recorded? I wonder if this was actually legal?

Claire said...

"Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa) it is permitted to record personal phone calls, for personal use - even without the consent of your interlocutor - as long as no-one else is involved in the recording and those recordings are not passed on to a third party."
Apparently.