Geoffrey Lean: A government too concerned with headlines will scupper the planet
11 August 2002

"Tell me," I asked a senior Downing Street figure over dinner earlier this year, "why are you all so paranoid in No 10?"

I was, I admit, trying to stir it. I expected a heated denial and an impassioned exposition of the Prime Minister's coolness, wisdom and far-sightedness. Just what was needed, I thought, to enliven the conversation.

But my companion made no effort to contest the charge. It was, he retorted, the fault of the media, which obstinately failed to credit the Government for its achievements and persisted in misrepresenting its motives. And, to prove his point, he cited how many newspapers reported ministerial visits to countries and conferences abroad as "junkets", chiding them for not staying to tackle problems at home.

It was quite an admission. Here, after all, is a government enjoying its second successive huge parliamentary majority and its fifth consecutive year of almost uninterrupted massive opinion-poll leads. It is blessed with an ineffective Opposition and has had a relatively good press, certainly compared to its immediate predecessor. It ought, for heaven's sake, to be able to ignore such a trifling media jibe.

The exchange came back to me last week during the fiasco over Michael Meacher's attendance at this month's Earth Summit in Johannesburg. It emerged that Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's unelected director of communications, had banned the Environment minister from the delegation in an attempt to avoid further charges of junkets at the taxpayer's expense  even though, by common consent, Mr Meacher has much the best command of the summit's concerns of anyone in the Government. Of course, it backfired. Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups blithely offered to pay the minister's fare. Mr Campbell was deeply embarrassed. And despite repeated internal avowals that there was to be no going back, Mr Meacher's ticket was returned within 48 hours.

It was farcical, but also desperately serious. For the episode illustrates much of what is worst about this government, and casts doubt on whether it is serious about addressing many of the most urgent issues facing humanity. It suggested that, when it comes to the crunch, Downing Street is more concerned about a day's tabloid headlines than the future of the planet. For the summit  the world's biggest-ever conference, to be attended by 174 countries and 106 heads of government  will determine nothing less. It is supposed to reach agreement on a plan to tackle the interlinked crisis of escalating environmental destruction and deepening poverty.

At present it is headed for failure, after a disastrous series of preparatory meetings, ending in Bali last month. Ministers agree this would be a catastrophe, provoking further conflicts and terrorism and greatly increasing migration from poor to rich countries. Britain's position will be pivotal. And Mr Meacher  the most respected environment minister in the world  is one of the participants with the best chance of making a difference. Mind you, much of the media has shown no more perspective than Mr Campbell: there is some justice in my dinner companion's frustration. For ever since a rash of inaccurate stories in May alleging that the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, was planning to go the Bali conference for a jaunt, some papers have shown little interest in any other aspect of the summit. Last week editorials in right-wing sheets described it as "a ball". Take it from me  after the best part of three decades covering the wretched things  they are nothing of the sort. As some of those writing the "junketing" stories well know, they belong to one of the lower circles of hell, with ministers and officials taking the worst punishment. They spend endless hours haggling over the precise wording of reams of text. And they invariably end up with two or more all-night sessions, working round the clock to try to reach agreement.

A confident, competent government would laugh off such poor reporting. Yet this one is easily thrown by it. That is puzzling. For Downing Street has been far less ready to change course after the far more serious "cash for favours" allegations. It remains determined to push through GM crops and foods, despite massive public opposition. Above all, it seems bent on war with Iraq in the face of immense popular disquiet and dire warnings from experts ranging from cabinet colleagues to church leaders, from diplomats to the military. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, as my dinner companion tacitly admitted, the Government is obsessed to the point of paranoia with the tabloid headline. Another senior figure, this one from the Cabinet Office next door, was blunter. "This is what happens when you let a tabloid journalist run the country," he told me recently. "No 10 genuinely confuses making headlines with government. It thinks that if it changes the headlines, it can change the country."

Bitter? Jaded? Over the top? He was probably guilty on all three counts. But last week's events add credence to his charges. Such attitudes  and the whiff of a mediaeval court that sometimes hangs about No 10  would also help to explain why Downing Street was so surprised by the strength of the outcry over Mr Meacher's non-attendance. For the minister has a constituency  something the Blairites often find surprisingly hard to understand. But the most dispiriting aspect of the affair is what it says about Downing Street's real attitude to the summit. Britain has long been seen as one of the countries most likely to stop it collapsing. Mr Blair himself was the first head of government to commit himself to going. Mr Prescott, with his support, has visited 30 prime ministers and 100 environment ministers in the past two years to try to pave the way for agreement, earning a unique brokering role. Both have put pressure on the United States. Gordon Brown has campaigned hard for a reduction in Third World debt and an increase in aid, and Britain has now stepped up its own giving, reversing decades of decline. After 40 years or more of successive governments dragging their feet, Britain was finally in the lead, and at the most senior level.

Last year Mr Blair promised that Britain would "provide leadership" at the summit. But as agreement has looked more problematic  and as the "junket" headlines have increased  he has cooled. He himself will now attend for only a few hours. It is hard to believe that the Prime Minister and his advisers could put fleeting publicity before the future of our children. But they have just a few weeks to prove otherwise.