By Kenneth Roy
With the first log fire of the winter lit, and the rain battering on the windows at the start of our Indian summer, I thought with unaccountable nostalgia of the Labour Party, which seems to have abandoned clapped-out seaside resorts in favour of socially disordered northern cities.
It was half past six on Sunday evening. All the teatime bulletins having been and gone, I resorted to BBC News 24 for the first despatches from Liverpool, just in time to see young Ed march purposefully across a deserted square in the company of an unidentified woman. Had I been the leader’s friend and advisor, I would have arranged a small welcoming party at the door of the conference hall. Alastair Campbell once attended to such important details.
BBC News 24 then cut to the studio where the presenter, Annita McVeigh, introduced a fairly extended clip from Mr Miliband’s appearance earlier that day on the Andrew Marr programme. It could not help feeling stale. Had nothing happened since nine in the morning at the start of the annual conference of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition? Mr Miliband spoke repeatedly of the need to ‘grow the economy’, an irritating piece of English usage, but the performance was not quite devoid of content. He proposed a temporary cut in VAT in order to ‘grow the economy’. Anyone who has been in a shop recently would not be disposed to disagree.
In the summer of 1997, when Gordon Brown was on holiday in Cape Cod, he asked his future wife, Sarah, to take him to a supermarket. ‘When they got there,’ writes Chris Mullin in the latest instalment of his diaries (‘A Walk-On Part’), ‘she asked what he wanted to buy and he replied that he didn’t want to buy anything. He just wanted to see what it was like. Something he can no longer do in England’. But I digress. We no longer have Mr Brown. Instead we have Mr Miliband – ‘the wrong brother’ as he is better known. It is possible that Mr Miliband is not yet so completely out of touch that he has forgotten what a supermarket looks like – or a shopping bill. We have, anyway, the proposed temporary cut in VAT.
This would have been worth following up as an idea – as well as the more general notion of ‘growing the economy’. Such a possibility might even have been in the mind of Annita McVeigh who, with an air of seriousness, said we were now being taken live to Liverpool for a report on the proceedings.
A figure unfamiliar to me, that of the ‘chief political correspondent’, appeared on the screen. After a few seconds it occurred to me that this must be the new Laura Kuenssberg. Ms Kuenssberg was a good woman in a political scrum, asking sharp impromptu questions. But rather than hang around waiting for Nick Robinson’s job, she took herself off to that graveyard of news broadcasting, ITV, as its business editor in one of the year’s odder career moves. Sadly, we no longer have Laura Kuenssberg. Instead we have Norman Smith.
Mr Smith could have stopped the odious flow at any time by asking a challenging question, as Ms Kuenssberg would have done. But he was clearly enjoying himself as much as Mr Hoggart.
Mr Smith chose to ignore all that the leader had said on the Andrew Marr programme, or indeed anywhere else, and to concentrate on the defects of the leader himself. The burden of Mr Smith’s message was unmistakable: no one thinks highly of Mr Miliband; he is a liability to his party. Perhaps this is true – it is too early to say; he had quite a good summer over the phone-hacking affair – but it was surprising to hear it so forcefully expressed by a person of such neutrality as the chief political correspondent of the BBC. As hatchet jobs go, it lacked the required finesse.
The artistry was left to Mr Smith’s ‘guest’, the Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart, who was allowed several minutes unchallenged to mock Mr Miliband’s physical appearance. Until Sunday evening, I had not heard a British politician being so ridiculed for how he – or she – looks. It happens constantly in America, particularly to women: one of the Republican candidates for the presidency is being criticised for her wide mouth; even the august Washington Post comments on Mrs Clinton’s hairstyles.
Mr Hoggart must be favourably impressed by such precedents. He spoke of the offputting quality of Mr Miliband’s ‘deep-set panda eyes’ and suggested that there was something not right with the leader’s mouth. Although done in that light way perfected by a certain media type – no doubt, if challenged, Mr Hoggart would dismiss it all as a joke – it was deeply unpleasant to listen to.
Mr Smith could have stopped the odious flow at any time by asking a challenging question, as Ms Kuenssberg would have done. But he was clearly enjoying himself as much as Mr Hoggart. At the end of the exchange, the chief political correspondent pointed to the beige backcloth of the conference platform and wondered if it might be intended to appeal to the ‘sort of people who go to Ikea’. And so concluded BBC News 24’s coverage of the Labour Party conference. Back in the studio, Annita McVeigh gave every impression of being as taken aback as the bemused viewers. She said that, when she had asked for a report on the conference, she had not expected it to include a reference to the decor.
Next week, when it is the turn of the Conservative leader to be subjected to the wit and wisdom of Norman Smith and his guests, you may be assured that there will be no references whatever to the physical appearance of David Cameron. It is easy to mock a man who will not be prime minister for at least four years and who may never be prime minister; but not at all politic to mock the man on whom the BBC depends for a continuation of its privileged position in British life. That is the true nature of the personal attack on Ed Miliband – its easy partiality. Meanwhile, Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, continues to talk of ‘putting quality first’.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review