Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Is that light at the end of the tunnel really the Sun?

‘Lettergate’ gave the Sun a stick with which to beat the Prime Minister. But did Rupert Murdoch fatally misjudge the public mood? And are we ready to love Gordon Brown, asks Paul Hopkins

Is the tide about to turn a little for Gordon Brown? He's not been having a good week of it, having been accused of being illiterate, insensitive, and lacking in the proper procedures of protocol because he did not bow his head at the right moment at the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph.

And because he dared to put pen to paper to offer his condolences to the mother of a young man killed in Afghanistan — in a letter that had a few mistakes.

In fact the Prime Minister has not been having a good time of it since way back. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he was criticised for squandering taxpayers' money and for compounding the global bank crisis by handing over responsibility for the banks to the Financial Services Authority. Then he ran away with himself by selling the family silver — or rather the UK's gold reserves — 60% of which he sold off at $275 an ounce before prices rocketed, resulting in £2bn of lost potential revenue.

As Prime Minister he has faced a barrage of criticism on all fronts over almost every issue he has had utterance about: from his handling of the NHS, to his dilly-dallying over calling a snap election, to failing to denounce China's human rights record during the Olympics, to his support for a new ‘War on Terror' bill extending the time a person could be held for questioning to 42 days.

(The House of Lords defeated the Bill, saying it was “fatally flawed, ill thought through and unnecessary”.)

And then, of course, there has been his lack of sartorial elegance (those ill-fitting old navy suits and plain ties), his gait, his stance, his funny eye, not to mention his embroilment in the expenses fiasco in claiming for the payment of his cleaner and a double payment for £153 to a plumber (which he has since repaid in full).

If all of that was not bad enough, this Glaswegian son of church minister then went and lost the long-time support of the UK's biggest-selling newspaper, the Sun, leaving him these days to wake up each morning wondering if he is on the front page being accused of losing everybody's money or of just being the man in the bad suit.

The centre of all this criticism has been on Labour's foreign policy and of Britain's ongoing role in Iraq and in the war in Afghanistan and it is that which, this week, finds Gordon Brown once again lambasted and given a public dressing down, not least by his one-time friends at the Sun.

And sure why not? Didn't he only have the temerity to write a letter to the mother of a young solder killed in Afghanistan, expressing his condolences. In the letter to Jacqui Janes he misspelt the name of her son Jamie, and generally muddied the tone of the letter with other spelling mistakes, in a hand that appeared sloppy and indecisive.

Mrs Janes was appalled, upset, and insulted by the Prime Minister's personal letter. When Gordon Brown was told how appalled, upset and insulted the young soldier's grieving mother was, he was visibly upset and took it upon himself to phone Mrs Janes personally to apologise for any distress he had caused.

A sad and misfortunate chain of events, you'll agree, but the Sun and its billionaire owner Rupert Murdoch (who lives in tax-free exile) were having a field day with it. Not only had they blatantly suggested that a badly written letter showed a man incapable of governing — obviously those at the Sun have not heard of the theory that rushed handwriting can be the sign of an overactive and intelligent mind — but they then published, line for line, the full content of Gordon Brown's private phone conversation with Jacqui Janes in which he attempted, somewhat lamely I'll agree, to amend any perceived wrong-doing.

Let's put a few things straight here. Here is a man, in the middle of a global conflict for which he bears no responsibility, who takes the time to personally sit down and write to the family of a dead soldier, as he has done with every UK casualty of the War on Terror. Anyone who has ever had to sit down and write such a letter to a bereaved family member or friend will know that even the steadiest hand can reach breaking point, such can be the emotion of the moment, and the writing can often appear somewhat hurried.

Gordon Brown's personal letters to the families of every dead soldier body-bagged back from Afghanistan are a far cry from the letters of old from the Ministry of Defence which coldly said “We regret to inform you ''

Gordon Brown is blind in one eye, the vision not perfect in the other due to its compensatory role, hence the use of a blunt felt-tip pen and, again, the ‘bad' hand-writing. The fact that a man with such a handicap still clings to an old-fashioned value that it is right and proper to put pen to paper at a time like this is something we should be applauding, not |attacking.

Despite what many of us may think of the Prime Minister, I see him now, alone, at his desk, pausing with pen in hand, his eyes welling up at the thought of yet another parent losing another son in a war with few properly defined objectives and for which he has to assume responsibility.

And somewhere in the time it took to write that hurried, but wholly well-meaning, letter to Jacqui Janes, I'm sure Gordon Brown as a parent must have been thinking of the death of his own child, Jennifer Jane, at just 10-days old or the future for his son who has cystic fibrosis. The loss of a child, any child, no matter what the age or what the circumstance, brings the same, unthinkable grief. It is something no parents ever, nor should ever, get over.

The Sun newspaper, traditionally a supporter of Labour, switched allegiance when it saw how angry the plain people of the UK were at the policies of ‘new' Labour and, in particular, the indecisiveness of Gordon Brown. In short, it feared losing its massive circulation in a testing time for the newspaper industry. Its decision to back the Conservatives was purely commercial.

But I ask is the tide about to turn somewhat for Gordon Brown in this his hebdomus horribilis, for yesterday came the first fluttering of a change of heart among the ordinary people of this land — many of them readers of the infamous Sun.

Amid accusations of a “politically motivated” and “highly personal attack”, there was dismay among allies, newspaper columnists and online bloggers that an apparently private conversation had been recorded and published by Mr Murdoch's newspaper. Words like ‘smear' and ‘political agenda' come to mind.

We are all human. We all make mistakes. Granted, Gordon Brown has made more than his fair share of them. But in taking pen to paper to sympathise with Jacqui Janes over the death of her lad Jamie, he acted with the most honourable of intentions and, I've no doubt, with heartfelt sincerity.

To paraphrase the Lords, Gordon Brown's action this week was “anything but flawed'', it was “not ill thought through'' but it was “necessary''.

It was something the Prime Minister had to do. Something, as a parent, he instinctively did.

And bad handwriting and misspellings aside, a lot of us, deep down, know he did the right thing.

Bar Mr Murdoch that is.

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