When newspapers speak, politicians listen

One of the quickest ways to get politicians to change direction is to enlist the support of a newspaper.

By James Evelegh

When newspapers speak, politicians listen

In the upcoming January / February issue of InPublishing magazine, we’re running a fascinating Ray Snoddy interview with Nick Wallis, the journalist who played such an important role in delivering justice to the sub-postmasters wrongly accused of defrauding the Post Office.

The injustice took over a decade to come to light and put right, and court proceedings continue.

So, why did what Wallis regards as the worst corporate scandal in the UK this century take so long to gain traction?

In part, writes Snoddy, because “There was no big newspaper campaign behind the story.”

Over time, that changed and when the Daily Mail took up the fight, the campaign gathered momentum.

Leaving aside the question as to why it took Fleet Street so long to run with the story, the lesson I take is that campaigning newspapers are so often the lynchpin of any successful campaign for justice.

There was another example of newspapers’ influence more recently. The prime minister’s current travails, including having to dealing with an increasingly mutinous Conservative party, arguably date back to the Owen Paterson affair last autumn, when the government tried to retrospectively change the rules so as to allow Paterson off the hook. (He’d been found guilty of breaching paid advocacy rules by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.)

The government went as far as forcing through a vote, which they won, but which they had to, almost immediately, execute a 180 degree U-turn on. Many Conservative MPs felt humiliated and let down.

Pondering on the reasons for the climbdown, Heather Stewart, the Guardian’s political editor, wrote that the prime minister is “notoriously fixated on newspaper headlines, and on Thursday even the usually supportive Daily Mail called the move to protect Paterson “shameless”.”

That fixation is widespread amongst politicians and with good reason. They are keenly aware of newspapers’ ability to influence public opinion and set the news agenda.

Such power isn’t always used wisely, but when it is, it puts a spring in the step of every journalist.

As for what impact this morning’s headlines will have (‘Tories call on Boris Johnson to resign’), only time will tell…

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