How should we respond to the media speculation?

by Stephen Tall on October 12, 2007

For the conspiracy theorists among you, the fact that Lib Dem Voice has crashed on the same day as it is cited by both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph as fuelling the pressure faced by party leader, Ming Campbell, might be just too much.

I have my own theory: the LDV servers have revolted at the misnaming of the website by both those august journals as Liberal Voice. I would have thought both the name and the url of the website would be enough for even the most slapdash and obtuse of journalists to be able to get it right. Which is a ripe lesson for me never to underestimate their incapacity.

It might also be of course that the servers have – if you believe the Torygraph report, which has since been shamelessly plagiarised by the Grauniad – become overloaded thanks to Lib Dem members “swamping” the site with anti-Ming Campbell comments:

unease has spread to the party’s grassroots who have swamped Liberal Voice, the most popular supporters’ website, with messages demanding the resignation of Sir Menzies.

The Torygraph’s facile Andrew Pierce is clearly reading a different website to the one I help edit. Yes, there have been messages calling on Ming to resign. They are, I would estimate (and with the site down I can’t currently check), in a clear minority and number no more than half a dozen. This may count as “swamping” if you’re writing in a Tory paper to stir up a bit of political excitement now a general election is off the agenda.

Still, at least Pierce came up with an original story. Factually flimsy, but still. The Guardian’s Hélène Mulholland doesn’t even have that excuse. Not only does she flagrantly rip-off the Torygraph piece, Hélène then has the bare-faced cheek to write:

Chatter about Sir Menzies’s leadership overshadowed last month’s annual conference in Brighton.

Wrong, Hélène. The only chatter about Sir Menzies’s leadership I heard was along the lines, “Why won’t the press report what’s happening here instead of banging on about Ming’s leadership all the time?”

In short, the press is talking rubbish with such casual concern for the facts that it scarcely counts as journalism at all.

And yet, and yet… As I posted on Lib Dem Voice this week, for Lib Dems to complain about the media’s pathetic press coverage is, at the moment, beside the point. The media has made up its mind: Ming must go. They will refuse point-blank to be interested in any other story, unless the party’s (and Ming’s) poll ratings perk up, and quickly.

We can moan about this all we like, and yes, it’s unfair. But that’s the situation and we’ve got to work out our response to it, or else endure another 18 months (or whatever) of the only occasions we gain any national media exposure being when the press reports speculation about Ming’s future.

It is no longer enough for Ming, or anyone else, simply to try and deflect the question, and state that Ming’s the elected leader, and he’s here to stay up to and beyond the next election. That the question is being asked is inflicting damage on the party, and becomes self-perpetuating: if the only times the public hears about the Lib Dems is because the press is reporting a leadership crisis is in itself a problem.

We cannot be a captive of the media agenda: I do not believe Ming’s leadership should be ended because the press is playing silly buggers. Journalists are already self-important enough in their belief that they can make the political weather without the Lib Dems offering them a sacrificial lamb in the hope they might actually bother to do their job and report on the state of the party fairly and objectively.

But, equally, it is no good closing our eyes and ears, and pretending all this nonsense will just go away if we ignore it. The vultures of the Fourth Estate are circling. For the good of the party, the uncertainty cannot be allowed to continue. The onus is on our MPs, I think. A letter signed by all 62 of Mings Commons colleagues expressing full support for Ming as leader is the very least that’s needed. If they’re not prepared to do that, they have to work out what they are prepared to do.