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“He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—‘The horror! The horror!’”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The sudden surge in support for the Liberal Democrats was accompanied, predictably, and properly, by increased scrutiny of the party and its policies.

However, until the television debates, breaking up the self-serving establishment consensus between Labour and the Tories on the one hand, and Fleet Street’s finest on the other, was not regarded as a real likelihood in any election. The balance of probabilities afforded the mainstream media the opportunity to to relax into complacent clichés about the Liberal Democrats, from gentle teasing about beards and sandals to attempts to portray them as out of touch loonies.

Nick Clegg’s clear and robust presentation of the Liberal Democrats’ key proposals has put paid to both those tired canards – and the likes of the Barclays, Murdoch and Rothermere are now in a blind panic for two reasons. Firstly, Cameron, their favoured son, is not walking it, despite the combined might of their media empires and Labour’s dismal record in Government. Secondly, they have woken up to the fact that they have absolutely no handle on Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and the grass roots-led political insurgency that is threatening to take this election out of the clutches of the press and hand it back to the voter. (And if anyone believes that rumours of political interference are exaggerated, remember Murdoch’s explicit admission of political editorial control in his newspapers.)

Their panic became very clear in the headlines of the last forty-eight hours.  The Telegraph screamed sleaze in 9/11 point headlines about donations that were properly accounted for and properly spent, insinuating that Clegg had pocketed the cash. (Amusingly, the subsequent debunking of this particular untruth revealed that Clegg actually paid out more money than he received.) At the same time, the Daily Mail attempted, outrageously, to slur Clegg with Nazi allusions. (The hypocrisy of the Mail is breath-taking – you may remember their “outrage” when they attacked Chris Huhne for  condemning William Hague and the Conservative Party for the Tories’ European associations with right-wing homophobes and climate change-deniers.)

To what extent are we to believe Tory denials of involvement in any conspiracy to smear Nick Clegg?

Not at all, if Nick Robinson is to be believed. He wrote on his blog last night:

“I now learn that political reporters from the Tory-backing papers were called in one by one to discuss how Team Cameron would deal with “Cleggmania” and to be offered Tory HQ’s favourite titbits about the Lib Dems – much of which appears in today’s papers.”

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a brutal analysis of man’s duality and the conflict between the idealistic projection of civilised values and the savage reality of desperate men. If Nick Clegg on a resurgent Liberal tide is the Barclays-Murdoch-Rothermere Establishment’s nightmare vision, then yesterday’s headlines are the result of his media henchmen attempting to fulfil the political equivalent of Kurtz’s scribbled instruction: “Exterminate the brutes!”

Perhaps this is what lay behind the showdown at the offices of The Independent, when Murdoch’s son, James, and News International stooge Rebekah Brooks (formerly Wade), stormed in carrying copies of the Independent and its wrap-around advert proclaiming “Murdoch won’t decide this election – you will.” One experienced journalist described the episode as being “like a scene out of Dodge City”. Very interestingly, the Guardian reports that the Indy showdown was preceded by a meeting between the Murdoch and Rothermere camps.

They should beware.

Those who remember Conrad’s book, or are familiar with its allegorical Vietnam War reinterpretation Apocalypse Now, will know how this story ends: with Kurtz’s isolation precipitating a descent into a destructive madness of self-obsession and self-aggrandisement, rendering him even more irrelevant to the world around him.

Life in the political wilderness and isolation from political civilisation destroying these faux-mythical beasts of the media Establishment?

As Michael Wolff writes of Murdoch’s flailing around: “this is one way for empires to end”.

Let’s hope.

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