Farage and The Times
Is Rupert Murdoch aware that The Times —whose gigantic losses he has borne stoically for more than 30 years — has been running an hysterical campaign against the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage?
Murdoch likes Farage. He had him to dinner last year at his flat in St James's, and has tweeted enthusiastically in his favour. The affection is hardly surprising. The UKIP leader is an outsider, whose attacks on the British Establishment and the European Union echo his own deeply-held beliefs.
Perhaps the media mogul does know about the almost daily assaults on Farage and UKIP in the paper's news pages, columns or leading articles, and judges that there is nothing he can do about them. He has claimed in the past that whereas he does sometimes interfere in the editorial affairs of the Sun, he leaves The Times to its own devices, as he is supposed to under the original terms of his acquisition of the newspaper. But I think it rather more likely that the 83-year-old tycoon, preoccupied as he is with problems in his wider media empire, does not fully realise what has been going on.
The Times is, of course, perfectly justified in shining a light on Farage and his party. The issue is whether the paper has been showing balance and good sense in doing so. It would be hard to argue that it has. In the past few weeks Farage has been referred to as a "buffoon" in a headline, and he or his party have twice been called "fruitcakes", which was David Cameron's silly put-down. The UKIP leader has been held up to contempt for employing his wife, for accepting a donation from a manufacturer of e-cigarettes, and for having a "volcanic temper" which can tip over into violence. It was The Times which first alleged in a breathless "splash" that the married Farage once enjoyed the attentions of a mistress. The paper subsequently twisted the knife one more time by suggesting that the same alleged ex-mistress had made "false sex claims" against a Tory MP. Is that Farage's fault?
Above all, The Times has questioned UKIP's finances in a blitz of front and inside page news pieces, and lengthy features. Despite its best efforts, none of the allegations has seemed to stick, though the suggestion that Farage had misused annual EU expenses of £15,500 a year was taken up enthusiastically by the BBC, and recycled, albeit with less fervour, by other newspapers. The worst that can be said about Farage on this front would appear to be that he has a somewhat free-and-easy attitude towards accounting, and that he has no compunction about trousering payments from an institution which he abhors. The paper has not yet convicted him of dishonesty, but the volume and repetitiveness of its allegations have probably helped to create an impression that the leader of UKIP and his party are not as straight as they should be.
The conundrum is why this fusillade of mud pies should be emanating not from the Europhile Guardian or Independent but from The Times, a paper which has been notably Eurosceptic in the past. During the 1997 election campaign, it backed Eurosceptic candidates of any party (including Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party) instead of plumping for Labour or Conservatives. Despite his avowals of non-interference, such a policy can only have originated in the mind of the arch Eurosceptic Rupert Murdoch.
Now his thoughts are evidently elsewhere. John Witherow, Editor of The Times since early last year, is not an ideological person. He is probably a mild Eurosceptic. Very possibly he has been trying to please No 10 with his ceaseless volley of attacks on UKIP and its leader. If so, he will certainly have succeeded. But the ferocity of the onslaught surely owes much to the beliefs of his executives and columnists, some Tory, others Labour, and all of them strongly anti-UKIP.
Foremost among them is the columnist and ex-chief leader writer Daniel Finkelstein (recently ennobled for his services as a loyal Tory hack), who is especially close to George Osborne. The Osborne connection is also visible in Alice Thomson (author of several anti-UKIP tirades), who with her husband Ed Heathcoat-Amory is among the Chancellor's oldest friends. Almost every columnist and writer on The Times is viscerally anti-UKIP (Philip Collins, David Aaronovitch, Matthew Parris, Oliver Kamm, Hugo Rifkind, Tim Montgomerie) and most, if not all, have written critically of UKIP. Their collective influence on Witherow must have been strong. The only Times writer I can think of who may nurse some sympathies for UKIP is Melanie Phillips, a recent refugee from the Daily Mail.
There is nothing at all discreditable about columnists having strong political allegiances, or disliking Nigel Farage and UKIP. I should mention that I have limited enthusiasm for him myself, and at the time of writing cannot imagine voting for UKIP in this month's European elections. What is unwise in a newspaper of The Times's standing is the utter uniformity of views, the relentless attacks and the lack of fair-mindedness. Witherow might reasonably argue that he is offending few of his readers (according to a recent YouGov poll, only 6 per cent of them are likely to vote UKIP compared with 17 per cent of the Daily Telegraph's readership and 20 per cent of the Mail's). But he is perhaps in danger of discrediting The Times. Its unbalanced campaign reminds me of its botched attempt to ruin Lord Ashcroft more than a decade ago, which resulted in Murdoch eventually hoisting the white flag.
An understandably irate Nigel Farage has accused The Times of acting as the Establishment's paper. Actually the charge against it is graver than that. It stands accused of being the lackey of the party in power. That is the role it fulfilled during the New Labour years, as Rupert Murdoch wanted. I can't imagine he is quite so pleased this time — if indeed he knows.