And Cameron continued to treat Rebekah Brooks as a valued friend, riding with her husband, dining at their house, and frequently sending her chummy texts. Her perky evidence to Leveson was very damaging to Cameron, not least her revelation that his texts were signed “LOL” until she explained that this did not mean, as he thought, “lots of love” but “laugh out loud.” Two more of Cameron’s inner circle are William Hague, the foreign secretary, who for some time was paid, inexplicably, around £200,000 a year to write a column for the News of the World, and Michael Gove, the education secretary, who used to work for the Times, as his wife still does. As recently as February, Gove used a speech to parliamentary journalists to attack the Leveson inquiry as a “cure worse than the original disease,” which would have a “chilling” effect on journalism.
In November 2007, months after the bullying but inept Gordon Brown had taken over as prime minister, the Commons erupted with laughter when Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat MP, said that they had witnessed Brown’s “remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean.” Three years later Cable was business secretary in the coalition government but was the victim of a nasty piece of entrapment by the Daily Telegraph when female reporters posing as his constituents lured him into saying, “I have declared war on Mr Murdoch.” After that he was relieved of oversight of BSkyB, which passed to Jeremy Hunt, a Tory minister, only for Hunt’s special adviser to resign this year after he was shown to have been exchanging information with BSkyB.
Behind all this is the great awe, or plain fear, Murdoch inspires, which has shaped our national life for a generation. In her testimony to Leveson, Brooks said that she was “elected” by her readers, which is cute but silly and offensive. No one elects tabloid editors. She also said at one point, with fascinating self-importance, that “we needed to get the Welfare Bill through,” as though the News International tabloids were a branch of government—and to be sure, that is the way they have been treated. Murdoch’s own objections to the headline aside, to say that it was the Sun wot won it is almost certainly untrue.
Much academic research has confirmed my own instinct that newspapers do not in fact decide the results of elections. But politicians believe they do, and that is what empowers Murdoch. Successive party leaders and prime ministers have thought that they could be elected, and then govern, only with his consent. A former Blair aide said that they always felt at Downing Street as though Murdoch were the invisible twenty-fifth presence at the Cabinet table; and the recent conduct of Cameron, Hague, Gove, and Hunt has conveyed the strong impression that Her Majesty’s Government is a subsidiary of News International.
Quite apart from the benefits to all newspapers of the Wapping putsch, “Murdochia” is not simply a monolithic evil empire. Even Fox Television gave us the glorious achievement that is The Simpsons and Sky Sports has no more devoted, or addicted, viewer than this writer, who was only one of several hundred million people from England to Brazil to China watching the climax to the English soccer season, with Manchester City winning the pennant in the dying seconds. The admirable Times Literary Supplement remains the piano player in Murdoch’s London bordello, while The Wall Street Journal has continued its tradition of scrupulously objective reporting (on its news pages, at least) while covering the News International story, and Sky News, the British channel, has been exemplary in reporting on Leveson.
There is a final defense of Murdoch: if he has enjoyed the kind of sway he has, then the blame lies not with him but with the democratically elected leaders who have truckled to him. Now they, even Cameron and his unimpressive entourage, must realize that the game is up for this extraordinary old man. Whatever happens to Brooks and the other defendants, or however long it takes the despondent investors of News Corp to be rid of the toxic London papers, the spell is broken. Rupert Murdoch has gone from Svengali to Tar Baby, sticky and tainting to the touch. Cameron thought he was going to profit from his closeness to the great magnate; it could yet finish his prime ministership, with “laugh out loud” as his political epitaph.
—May 22, 2012
Rupert’s ‘Rosebud’? July 12, 2012