'THE PAST few months have seen Tony Blair unshakably hold to the courage of his convictions. He is entitled to receive recognition of his single minded determination.' So ran the Daily Mirror's editorial on Thursday of last week. This is the same paper that during the early part of this year ran page after page which tore apart Bush and Blair's case for war.
It was brilliant coverage with top writers and great design. Mirror editor Piers Morgan had decided that the paper should treat its readers seriously and not feed them a diet of trashy celeb trivia, scandal and sleaze. The paper played an important role in popularising the anti-war cause. Such campaigning journalism upset the top echelons of the Labour Party and worried Trinity Mirror, the media multinational which owns the Mirror. Under pressure, the paper panicked.
In mid-March it had greeted news of Clare Short's submission to Blair with the headline 'Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Coward...Revolting'. On 24 March, four days after the war started, it was 'Still Anti-War? Yes, Bloody Right We Are.'
But then it began to falter. The Guardian published a poll on 31 March that showed 49 percent of Mirror readers supported the war with 38 percent against. Such polls are notoriously unreliable but, according to industry insiders, 'It sent a shockwave through the top ranks of Trinity Mirror. One executive screamed, 'We have to sell the paper in Birmingham, not Baghdad'.'
The next day the Mirror still ran an excellent story on its front page 'Slaugher - Women And Children Killed By US Troops'. But by 3 April the front was 'Routed - Republican Guard Divisions Defeated'.
This continued with 'Saddam Cheek' on 5 April (about Saddam Hussein taking to the streets of Baghdad) and, on 8 April, 'Born To Serve' (over a story of a British soldier who had been killed in Iraq). The article continued, 'He died in the Battle for Basra, aged 18. We questioned [note the past tense] why he was sent, but we would never question his pride, his honour, HIS COURAGE.'
Inside pages dropped most of the anti-war coverage and either praised British troops or avoided issues by returning to trivia. Of course the Mirror remained far better than its main rival, the Sun - which virtually ignored crimes like the massacres at the Baghdad markets. Murdoch's empire
But Mirror editor Piers Morgan now says that the paper's experience during the war was 'an interesting lesson learned. It's entirely down to the natural sense in this country, particularly among the tabloid readership, that once a war starts, if we're involved, we must unequivocally support our boys and girls. 'I personally slightly misjudged the way you could be attitudinal on the front page once the war started.'
Morgan says that Andy McNab, the former SAS man who writes for the Mirror, has helped him to understand that 'we slightly over-egged our anti-war approach'. In fact there is no evidence of Mirror readers departing in droves.
Morgan says the circulation fell by around 1.5 percent, hardly a slump. In commercial terms it is nothing against the £20 million the Mirror lost through its decision to take on the Sun through price cuts.
But the knives are out for Morgan. Last week Sly Bailey, Trinity Mirror's chief executive, took over direct management of all the group's newspapers, including the Mirror. A media analyst commented in the Independent, 'She's taking control over Piers Morgan. She needs to keep an eye on him.' No such doubts affect the media's pro-war camp.
In the wake of the war Rupert Murdoch, Sun owner and head of News Corp, has decided to push Sky News right and make it more like Fox News in the US. Asked by the New York Times whether Sky News had been imitating Fox, Murdoch replied, 'I wish. I think that Sky News is very popular but it's just a rolling half-hour of hard news all the time.' He doesn't like Sky's 'liberal bias'.
Fox takes a flag-waving, conservative line where US troops are always 'heroes' and 'liberators', and Donald Rumsfeld is regarded as a great thinker. One example is the way it directly lobbied for the US military to blow up Iraqi TV in Baghdad. Fox News's John Gibson wondered on 24 March, 'Should we take Iraqi TV off the air? Should we put one down the stove pipe there?' The next day the missiles smashed into Iraqi TV.
Sky News has already begun its transition by hiring the Sun's Richard Littlejohn to host a regular chat show. Sky wants to be freed from the 'impartiality and balance' rules which are supposed to be applied by the Independent Television Commission.
Murdoch says this will enable more choice and let alternatives to the left blossom as well. In reality it is those with the money who will get the biggest voice. Developments at the Mirror and Sky are a reminder of why we need a socialist newspaper which is not pushed around by the dictates of big companies.