The latest allegations that the Sunday Times sought to obtain details of Gordon Brown’s personal finances, and in particular that it sought to publish information that his son Fraser suffered from cystic fibrosis, add a further twist to a crisis that, for News International, is spinning further and further out of control. What possible public interest could there be in publishing details of a small boy’s illness simply because his father is a senior politician? Whatever one thinks about the rights of journalists to inquire, it speaks much for the moral compass of those involved.
But there’s something particularly significant about the targetting of Gordon Brown. It is difficult to think of any British Prime Minister – any senior British politician, really – who has endured as much personal abuse as Brown. All that nastiness and innuendo – about his alleged temper tantrums, the suggestions that he was mentally unstable and socially dysfunctional. There are a lot of Blairites who were quite happy to ride the tabloid tiger who should be consulting their consciences very carefully.
In my time in the Civil Service I only met Gordon Brown once – when he was still Chancellor. Some of the stereotype was true – Brown in a big meeting with officials was concise and direct to the point of brusqueness, a rather louring presence digesting the evidence that was put in front of him, inpatient of lengthy explanations of things he already knew. There was no bonhomie (and having seen what some Ministers think passes for putting their officials at ease, one could be grateful for that). It was also obvious that he had a natural authority and formidable intellectual command. It was that authority and command that, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, helped guide world economies through the immediate dangers.
And yet the abuse was profound – why? Brown, put simply, is not a tabloid person. Formidably clever and without what papers regard as empathy – presumably on the grounds that a smooth facility of Blair is some sort of political ideal. And I think that is what the tabloids hated most about Brown – his cleverness. Blair was prepared to engage with the fictions of the tabloid world-view – the belief that celebrities matter, that what matters is individuals not society – in ways that for Brown would have been simply dishonest. This was not a man who could deliver lacrymose homilies to People’s Princesses, or look comfortable in t-shirt and shorts at Berlusconi’s villa – Brown was the geeky kid always with his head in some book or another. The sort of kid who has been the sport of bullies since time immemorial, and we know there’s no bigger bully on the block than the Murdoch press. Brown was not, in the sense of the tabloids, a regular bloke; therefore he was there to be taken down.
I’m tempted to say that Brown should wear the abuse of the tabloids as a badge of honour, but then I’ve never had the serious illness of my child used as tabloid fodder. What is clear that the treatment of Brown, as much as the treatment of the family of Milly Dowler, shows why we deserve news media that are so much better.
Tabloid newspapers delude themselves that it as their role, to use the old Quaker phrasse, to speak truth to power; but the role of News International, it becomes increasingly clear, is to spread lies and innuendo to the powerless, to keep them in their place. And, above all, it seems, to bully and harrass those who do not conform to the warped values they promote.