I do not think I have ever seen such a concerted attack by the press against one man in a single day. The range of headlines from the Daily Mail "Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain", The Sun "Wobble Democrat", The Daily Telegraph "Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem donors and the payments into his private account", The Daily Express "Clegg's crazy immigration policy", the FT, "Clarke unleashed to attack Liberal Democrats", Metro "Lib Dems plan new house tax".
The problem for the press is that the attack is so random, it looks rather like a drunk in a pub car park: full of noisy rage, but not actually focused enough to land much of a punch on their opponent. The message from this spasm in the newspapers is not that the Liberal Democrats are crazy, corrupt, or even Nazis (a sure sign that the Mail has lost it there, I think): it is that a large block of vested right wing interests are desperate to stop the Liberal Democrats at any cost.
After Clegg's success in the leaders debate, the Conservatives tried to say that the policy of not replacing Trident like for like was the same as unilateral nuclear disarmament. This was completely untrue- and there must have been some rage amongst these smear merchants when three generals publicly supported the Liberal Democrat position. The transparent way that the Conservatives and their allies in the press tried to distort Liberal Democrat policies was so obvious - and it didn't work. A close examination of Liberal Democrat policies showed that there was much that was genuinely popular in what they were saying. The blip in the polls ended up being sustained.
Now the press themselves are beginning to fear what the power of the Liberal Democrats could do to them directly. Apart from the occasional support of The Independent, not one newspaper supports the Liberal Democrats. Instead the press entered into a cosy relationship with the other two parties. The Telegraph, Mail and Express mostly reliably Conservative, The Guardian and Daily Mirror reliably Labour, while Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, The Sun and The Times swing between the two, depending upon the proprietor's own political calculations. The endorsement of a newspaper for one or another political party was once a big thing- and the value that political leaders put on it could be measured in the amount of political patronage goodies: gongs, knighthoods and the odd peerage that were doled out to editors and columnists deemed to be influential.
Of course over the course of the past 4o years, the power of television weakened the power of the press- but the influence of the press still remained substantial enough.
However, the first Leader's debate was a catastrophic challenge to the press because TV is a far more immediate medium. Instead of second hand opinion disguised as news, people can directly judge for themselves the three leaders- and they clearly liked what they saw in Nick Clegg.
Even worse for the press, in this election the Liberal Democrats have been fighting a highly effective insurgent campaign on the Internet. Although the Lib Dems are much poorer than the other two parties, and do not have the support of the newspapers, the low cost and more open nature of the debate in such places as blogs and Facebook has evened up the disadvantage that the party faced. The Lib Dem poll surge has been particularly strong amongst younger voters: precisely the same people most comfortable with the new media. In other words, the power of the press is declining drastically. The posturing of the Daily Mail has been lampooned highly effectively- appropriately enough on YouTube. More and more the press are seen not as "tribunes of the people" keeping the political class honest but poisonous propagandists determined to protect their own vested interest in the system.
However, the fact is that the trends that are weakening the press- especially the Internet- are irreversible. The impact of such programmes as The Thick of It have alerted voters- even if only subliminally- to the way in which the media is part of a process of political manipulation. The result is that we are all far more cynical about the news we see in the press or on the TV. It is so much harder to manipulate blogs in the same way: bias is spotted earlier (and usually declared upfront anyway) and smears and inaccuracies are challenged quickly, and usually with equal aggression.
The more aggressively the press tries to smear Nick Clegg or the Liberal Democrats, or tries to denigrate the poll surge as some kind of flash in the pan, the more it underlines the Liberal Democrat narrative that the only way to get real reform is to vote for them. I am sure that the polls will flutter a bit in the face of this onslaught, but the fact is that the British people are so sick of the cynical corruption of the political system, that they are prepared to ignore the press which is screaming at them not to vote Liberal Democrat. The obvious plant of the daily Telegraph is such a complete smear that the story is not really about Nick Clegg, but the kind of dirty tricks that planted the story and allowed it to be published- and what their reasons were for doing so. Indeed on the blogs Conservatives were hotly denying that the story was anything to do with them- so obvious a piece of media manipulation is it. The fact is the Tories are playing very dirty- so desperate have they become to stop the Liberal Democrat juggernaut from creating a minority Parliament where reform is inevitable.
The Conservatives will claim that a majority of one, even if they only get less than 33% of the vote, still gives them a mandate for 100% power. It doesn't, it won't and were the Tories to be so contemptuous of the way that people actually voted, then they would quickly face a political breakdown. In fact the case of political, constitutional and electoral reform is unanswerable.
It is not the Lab/Con dominated political class that will deliver reform. It is not the dead tree press and the old media that will support it. As a kind of revolution begins to grip the political system, it is the new media that is in the vanguard of the battle and the Liberal Democrats who, untainted by the cosy deals with the press barons of the past, can shape the debate about how we can work together to deliver a better politics for our country.
The spasm of rage in today's press simply underlines the decline of the press and their increasing inability to frame debate on the issues or shape public opinion. This impotence in the face of the whirlwind of blogs and new media will mark another point in their decline. If the Liberal Democrats come through this media shitstorm- as I think they will- then the Nick Clegg's party will have even less interest in reviving the cosy patronage of past years.
The disgrace of today's front pages underlines the increasing pace of the decline of the press.
Of course the Youtube generation doesn't read them anyway, and probably thinks that if Jan Moir, Richard Littlejohn, and the rest are united in fear and hatred of the Liberal Democrats, then Nick Clegg must be doing something right.