Guardian asks Lib Dems, “When did you stop beating your wife?”

by Stephen Tall on September 12, 2009

The Grauniad, bastion of liberal values. But also a newspaper which today gives vent to a number of unsubstantiated smears against the Lib Dems in an article by Steven Morris – Liberal Democrats accused of dog whistle politics over Gypsy claims – which buys hook, line and sinker into the spin from Labour and Tory HQs.

The Grauniad’s story focuses on Islington (though cheerfully throws a few other snide half-truths into the mix to legitimise turning a local issue into a story for a national newspaper – of which more later), and the recent proposal by Islington Labour party to consider locating a site for travellers and gypsies in Highbury Fields, the borough’s premier open space. The Lib Dems in the area have campaigned against the idea, arguing that Highbury Fields is unsuitable as a location for any development, including new travellers’ sites. Agree or disagree with the local party’s position, but it’s an entirely consistent view.

What’s most definitely not consistent is Islington Labour leader Catherine West’s spin. Here’s how the Grauniad presents it:

In Islington the row broke out after the Labour leader, Catherine West, raised the possibility of allowing Travellers on Highbury Fields. She claims the suggestion was “off-the-cuff” joke but the Lib Dems, who narrowly control the council, seized on it.

It’s a bit hard to square Ms West’s claim with her statements to the Islington Tribune, though, where she’s quoted saying:

I said we could look at Highbury Fields. … Everything, including Highbury Fields, should be looked at if that’s what’s required of the local authority. No green space should be ruled out.”

Doesn’t sound like much of an “off-the-cuff” joke, does it? (Note to Grauniad journalists: it took me 30 seconds on Google to find that quote – is Steven Morris too busy taking short-hand dictation from Labour spin-doctors to do his own research?)

So much for the Islington accusations – controverisal planning disputes, even in the leafier parts of the meedja suburbs, rarely make it into the national press. The Grauniad needed to bolster its lead slur against the Lib Dems with some mini-slurs – to paint a picture, you understand, of the party’s so-called ‘dirty tricks’ machine. It pulled in two further examples, each as meretricious as the other.

Next up, then, is the Tories’ blatant attempt to whip-up a storm in Chippenham, Wiltshire, where the Grauniad hints at racism on the Lib Dems’ part for referring to the Tory candidate Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones as “the Conservatives’ Devon farmer”. Now it’s standard tactics for the political parties to try to ‘out-local’ each other in all elections, so there’s nothing exceptional at all about the Lib Dems’ endeavouors. Except that Mr Emmanuel-Jones, who is black, has willingly teed it up for hacks desperate for a story by supplying an innuendo-laden quote: “Their strategy is: foreigner, outsider. It’s not exactly racist, but …”

Lib Dem blogger James Graham has already posted a superb refutation of Mr Emmanuel-Jones’s allegation here, as well as acutely anticipating the Grauniad’s descent into flat-earth news:

The worry is that an unthinking media, steeped in churnalism, is going to end up being complicit in branding a blameless Lib Dem MP a racist for years to come simply for committing the heinous crime of doing a better job.

The Grauniad’s final attempt to smear the Lib Dems is almost too trivial to be worthy of mention, even to defend the party:

in Cornwall, members of Mebyon Kernow, which champions Cornish independence, are angry that one of their successful council candidates, Stuart Cullimore, was described as a “greasy-haired twat” in a Focus leaflet sent to homes in the run-up to an election.

No-one disputes the facts in the case, and it was one which Lib Dem Voice reported at the time: 40 ‘rogue’ Focus leaflets, out of a batch of 1,700, included the gratuitous insult. Who knows how it happened, though one thing’s for sure: it wasn’t a deliberate piece of dirty trickery on behalf of the Lib Dems, but an embarrassing cock-up which has (not surprisingly) damaged the local party’s reputation. For the Grauniad to lump this kind of local difficulty in with serious allegations of prejudice and racism is laughable/contemptible.

To return to where I started… The Grauniad: bastardising liberal values.