Dani Garavelli: Writing on the wall

IT'S less than a week since The Sun printed Gordon Brown's poorly-written letter to grieving mother Jacqui Janes and a consensus has already been reached: whatever the tabloid hoped to achieve with its vitriolic campaign against the PM, it scored its biggest own goal since attacking Liverpool fans after the Hillsborough disaster.

It might not be the height of good manners to post off a missive replete with spelling mistakes and corrections to a woman who has just lost her son in Afghanistan. But this clumsy faux pas pales into insignificance when set against the cynicism required to exploit the pain and anger of the newly- bereaved. And if using Janes's anger over the letter to further its own political ends was enough to provoke a backlash against the newspaper, then the decision to give her recording equipment so she could tape his stuttered apology brought judgment raining upon it.

Even in political circles – where hard knocks and low blows are par for the course – attacking a man with sight in only one eye for the way he writes continues to be viewed as the act of a playground bully. Chief amongst the newspaper's many misjudgments last week, was its underestimation of its own readers' sensibilities: for all their love of gung-ho headlines, they were well able to make a distinction between inadvertently messing up an expression of sympathy and attacking a man at his weakest point, just because you disagree with his policies. Hence, its comments boxes, so often full of bile for political leaders, were overwhelmingly in the PM's favour, with many suggesting the attack on his disability was "politically- motivated" and a "cheap shot".

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What The Sun achieved, then, was what Brown's spin doctors have been trying and failing to do for the duration of his leadership: drum up a degree of sympathy for him. The question is: is the kind of sympathy it has produced likely to engender a renewed respect for the beleaguered man and his party – as some have suggested – or is it more like the kind you have for a dying dog whose owners persist in kicking it; the kind that's more or less synonymous with pity?

Personally, I think it's unlikely Brown will gain in any way from last week's stramash as, despite the manipulative and underhand nature of The Sun campaign, he doesn't come out of it all that well.

I mean, I don't doubt he set out to write his message of condolence with the best of intentions. And a handwritten letter – however scrappy – is better than one dictated to and typed up by his aides.

And I understand having sight in one eye must make it difficult for him to write neatly. But I don't see how it stops him checking, and double-checking, the family's surname, nor how it's responsible for the fact that, when he made a mistake with her son Jamie's name, he corrected it with a blotchy pen, rather than ripping it up and starting again.

There are some who have cast Janes as an ingrate who is making a mountain out of a molehill. Brown is a busy man, they say. It was good of him to take the time.

But for many bereaved people, letters of condolence take on big significance. A final link with their loved one, they are read and reread in the months after their deaths, so they ought to be carefully thought out and neatly-presented.

Brown's failure to grasp the importance of this – and to make sure his disability didn't impact on Janes's grief – are evidence of his lack of emotional, if not his mental, intelligence.

For all I don't believe it should ever have been recorded, his telephone call is also revealing. A fascinating mix of genuine contrition and self-justification, in which – as Janes point out – the word sorry is frequently used without any apology actually being made.

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None of these misjudgments are heinous crimes. They are the product of the kind of everyday inadequacy we all feel from time to time when called upon to say the right thing in stressful circumstances. But where a lack of social grace and a bumbling awkwardness might be tolerable – even endearing qualities in our friends and next door neighbours – they're scarcely what you look for in a world leader. It's difficult to imagine, isn't it, voters on the brink of voting SNP, putting an X in the Labour party candidate's box at the last moment, because they are touched by his crippling shyness and social inadequacy.

In a sense, last week's controversy merely marks the latest stage in an ongoing journey. Over the two and a half years since he became PM, Brown has mutated from a self-contained, if slightly moody, son of the manse to a twitchy misfit, who seems uncomfortable in his own skin. Once a brooding Heathcliff – in his own estimation at least – he now seems to have more in common with the hapless and self-loathing house elf Dobby in the Harry Potter books.

We can chart this transformation through all his disappointments: from his legendary fall-out with Tony Blair, through the biblical-style fire, floods and pestilence that beset the early days of his premiership, to the humiliation of being sidelined by Barack Obama and being asked if he took pills by Andrew Marr. Intriguingly, as his wife Sarah blossoms – gaining in confidence and wearing ever more glamorous outfits – he seems to be crumbling.

Brown's run-in with Jacqui Janes may reflect badly on The Sun, but still it put him on the back foot . If the newspaper's intention was to portray Brown as a callous man who rode roughshod over a grieving mother's feelings, then sure enough its plans backfired. But if its aim was to consolidate the perception of him as a spent force, deserving of nothing more than our pity, then it absolutely succeeded, even if it sacrificed a few readers along the way.