At the last general election, the Liberal Democrats pursued a strategy of 'decapitation' against the Tories. It failed. Now it's the Lib Dems who are under attack from those who would seek to decapitate their hopes by killing off their leader's credibility; however, this time it isn't their political rivals in the main who are launching the assault, but the dead-tree press.
Whether the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express are doing this because they think it's right; or because they want to ally themselves with the Conservatives in return for favours somewhere further down the road if they are successful; or because the Conservatives have fed them these stories to attack the rival they fear could see their support crumble, and the newspapers have agreed; or because these papers have nailed their inky colours to the mast of the Good Ship Tory and don't want to be made to look like mugs for getting it wrong; or for any combination of these is a bit of a mystery for we mere punters perusing the papers at the news-stand or seeing their efforts online.
But what's clear is the overwhelming impression you get from it all. As I said yesterday, there's a whiff of desperation, of hysteria, of readers being told that they are wrong and that they should jump into line, rather than reflecting their mood and writing for them. Is it crossing a line from seriously covering the election and putting the Lib Dems under the correct amount of scrutiny, to an out-and-out "Get Clegg" campaign? If it has crossed that line, that might reflect badly on those who are doing it. We've seen this level of personal attack before, against Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, but that was during a time when there were fewer competing sources of information, when newspapers had more clout - and more readers - and when the internet wasn't there to hold the scrutineers up to scrutiny, watching them, watching us.
Are these front pages, then, the death throes of our inky friends at the national newspapers, desperately trying to wind themselves up for one last big swing at power, doing everything they can to bring the Conservatives to power, hoping they might get something in return one day somewhere along the line (or possibly even having been promised something in return)? Who's listening? And is there a danger that this could all backfire, and create a recalcitrance among their readers, who are fed up with being told what they should and shouldn't think?
If you look at the individual attacks, it's perhaps only the Telegraph's that appears to be a story at all - and even then, it's a massive amount of coverage for money that has been dealt with and accounted for, and where there is no suggestion that the money was 'resting in the account' of Clegg, or had been used in any way improperly. It's a tale, of course, and something worth telling; but it's not a killer blow, much as roaring Tory cheerleaders might try and tell you it is. Is it worth as much of the front page as it gets? I'm not so sure. Which makes you wonder why it has got so much. Did the Tele put this together ages ago, and have it ready as a hand grenade for election time? Or did they go back through their expenses stories with a fine-tooth comb to find something to launch at the Lib Dem leader? If it's something they've been storing up, that doesn't reflect well on the Telegraph at all; it smacks of them trying to influence an election then claim credit for the result afterwards rather than tell stories when they're relevant - though of course there could be similar front-page massive stories about the Conservative Party that they've been holding in reserve until now - but we'll see about that.
The Sun's is simply a representation of Clegg making mistakes - though it's hard to overestimate, when you look at the detail, the seriousness of these supposed errors or how gravely they will really damage the party. Again, it's a front page story about something less than consequential. The Express, meanwhile, is of course obsessed with immigration, as it has been for some time, but that counts against it in the final analysis - we've seen so many immigration lies down the months and years, and so much rubbish spoken about it, that it's hard to take them seriously now, even if they had a point. Besides, there's nothing wrong with allowing asylum seekers to work, in my opinion - but it's nice for the Express to admit this, for once, when it usually claims asylum seekers are 'spongeing' and fails to mention that they're not permitted to earn a living.
And so to the Mail. If you haven't read the perfectly justified and well written Nick Clegg piece from November 2002 that's supposedly the cause of the 'Nazi' business, then read it here. I find it hard to argue with anything he writes there - or to be more specific wrote seven-and-a-half years ago, despite the Mail giving the impression in its headline that this has all happened recently (not that they cared at the time). And as Chris pointed out, it's a bit daft of the Mail to say Clegg's words about WW2 obsession are wrong on the same page as giving away a DVD of the Second World War - In Colour*. You could also say it's a bit rich for the Mail to say Clegg was wrong when one of its own writers has a rather unhealthy obsession with 'Nazis' and 'fascists''.
This isn't the first time the Mail has attempted a 'Nazi' slur on a Lib Dem. Last year I wrote about how the paper had launched an attack on Lembit Opik for his great uncle's' alleged collaboration during the war - though of course they didn't mention Mail owner Jonathan Harmsworth's grandfather, a friend of 'my dear Fuehrer' Adolf Hitler, or the 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts' heritage of their own publication - funny that.
None of which is to say that there shouldn't be due scrutiny of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, because of course there should. But fair scrutiny and real stories, not just smears and mud-chucking, hoping that some of it will stick, which is what appears to be happening at the moment. There's a real chance that the right-wing press are going to dig their own graves with this one, either way - if they appear to influence the election and destroy a candidate, what does that say about our press, and about them? But if they are shown not to have any influence, what then? And of course there's another possibility - it's possible that they are already so discredited, these attacks only serve to make people decide that whoever they are attacking deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever happens, it's a fascinating time.
* In colour? In colour. The black and white bits have been shoved in a bin. Colour war only! Or 3-D! Now, the Boer War, in HD!