Miliband, Brown and the Heseltine Moment

September 23, 2008

An overheard remark by David Miliband is interpreted as evidence of his covert campaign to dislodge Gordon Brown. The treatment of his reference to a Heseltine moment is the journalistic equivalent of trading in junk bonds

One week on, and the city’s traders are widely criticised for self-centred avarice. Much the same terms could be used in the journalistic trading in a remark by David Milband overheard and turned into a headlined story.

The BBC report was no more reluctant than any other filed, as a story was eeked out of an overheard remark. This has, anyway, become accepted as legitimate journalistic practice. Bush and his remark to Tony Blair, and Cherie’s muttering at last year’s conference were recent examples. The practice is as unreflective of its dubious ethicality as were those behaviours of gamblers in the short-trading game over the least few months.

David Miliband has been overheard telling aides that he toned down his speech to Labour’s conference to avoid it being seen as “a Heseltine moment”

[He was] discussing his speech with staff who told him that it was being given six marks out of 10, and was heard to reply
“I couldn’t have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment.”
His aide replied
“No, you are right. You went as far as you could. That was what the party needed to hear.”

His comments [were] an apparent reference to one of the occasions Michael Heseltine challenged the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Journalistic Junk Bonds

This is no more than trading in journalistic junk bonds. I would uncomfortably accept the right, duty even, of a journalist who had overheard clear evidence of the duplicity of a potential Prime Minister. Suppose Milband had said to his aide

‘Yeah. I almost blew our cunning plan. It’s not easy hiding my superior talents, just in case people think the truth, and I’m seen as being disloyal to Gordon’.

I might have (reluctantly) accepted that it was worth reporting, provided the words were substantiated.

But this does not have to be an overheard Cassius moment with Brutus musing over the time in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on the fortune.

Michael Heseltine was hardly duplicitous. His ambition was never concealed in public. Maybe Miliband was using shorthand to say

‘Yeah. It’s getting a pain to stay in second gear because if I go any faster I’ll overtake Gordon and get a twenty five second penalty, and dish my chances when Gordon finally runs out of fuel’.

There’s just not enough to justify the conclusions being drawn. For me, there’s not even enough to justify creating a news story out of a private remark overheard. Leave it to the junk bond traders operating in the gossip market.