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Letting Murdoch in Through the Back Door

John Springs
Rupert Murdoch

“I wish they’d leave me alone.” Amid the strange vaudeville of the parliamentary hearing where Rupert and James Murdoch testified on July 19—from Rupert’s carefully-rehearsed, clumsily-delivered line, “This is the most humble day of my life,” to both witnesses’ obfuscations and protestations, to the gross final moment when a buffoon threw a pie in Murdoch’s face and was almost floored by his formidable wife—those riveting words of Rupert Murdoch’s, almost a throwaway line in the course of his testimony, might have passed unnoticed.

“They” are the British politicians—party leaders and prime ministers—who have for so long sought his favor, up to and conspicuously including David Cameron. In May of last year, Murdoch was bidden to 10 Downing Street two days after Cameron became prime minister; Murdoch implied that he found this a time-wasting nuisance. Why had Murdoch not, one of the MPs inquired during the hearing, arrived at the front door like other notables? “I was asked could I please come in through the back door,” he replied.

For Murdoch to say he wants politicians to leave him alone might sound preposterously disingenuous, but it’s doubtless true that he has no great wish to meet them, as long as they give him what he wants. They usually have, and that’s the problem.

One or two commentators have tried to defend Murdoch. His admiring biographer William Shawcross spoke up for him on BBC television, saying yet again that his defeat of the printing unions twenty-five years ago benefited the press as a whole. Matthew Parris, a former Tory MP and now a highly-paid columnist for Murdoch’s Times, said that “this whole hacking thing has been ludicrously overblown”; while Simon Jenkins, formerly in Murdoch’s employ as editor of the Times, writes that “Britain has gone mad … Has anyone been murdered?” and insists that Murdoch’s “influence on the media industry in general has been that of a serial innovator.”

Actually, someone had been murdered: public revulsion over the hacking into the voicemail of a murdered girl was not confected by Murdoch’s enemies. And the startling events of this month—the sacrificial folding of the News of the World, the resignation of Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, the two people Murdoch most wanted to protect, the arrest of one former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, and then another, Mrs. Brooks, the resignation of the head of the Metropolitan Police and his deputy—can’t be dismissed as passing trivia.

A frantic exercise in damage control on the Murdochs’ part is plainly not working. Every day since their appearance at Westminster has brought more bad news for them. Cameron’s claim that there was nothing “inappropriate” about his relationship with Mrs. Brooks has sagged into a tacit admission that the subject of BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster Murdoch wanted to buy outright in addition to the 39 percent he already owns, might possibly have cropped up in their many conversations.

In the latest twist in the story, two former News International Executives have publicly called into question parts of James Murdoch’s testimony about the soccer official Gordon Taylor, a hacking victim who sued the News of the World and was offered a large out-of-court settlement on condition of silence. At time of the settlement, News International insisted that only one “rogue reporter” had been guilty of hacking, but Taylor’s lawyers produced an important piece of evidence indicating that the practice was much more widespread: an email apparently addressed to one of News of the World’s leading reporters containing a transcript of a hacked voicemail message.

At the hearing, James Murdoch told MPs that he had never seen the crucial email; yesterday Colin Myler, the last editor of the News of the World when it was closed, and Tom Crone, the paper’s head of legal affairs, flatly contradicted him: “James Murdoch’s recollection of what he was told when agreeing to settle the Gordon Taylor litigation was mistaken.” He said he had not been told about the email, but “in fact we did inform him.”

As if that weren’t enough, the scandal has exposed the extent of the cronyism and corruption in the relations between News International and the Metropolitan Police. Almost incredibly, we learn that ten out of forty-five of the Met’s press officers are former NI employees, and it is now beyond dispute that the News of the World habitually paid money to policemen.

Since the paper is partly owned by an American corporation, its practice of bribing office could be grounds for a criminal suit in the US Meanwhile, the FBI has now opened an investigation into claims that Murdoch employees might have hacked into the voicemails of victims of the September 11 slaughter. If there is any truth to this, apart from legal consequences, the effect on American opinion would be devastating. It will be interesting to see how Murdoch’s loyal claque at the Wall Street Journal explain that away.

And yet amid all these baroque horrors, the real story is not Murdoch’s papers and the repulsive methods used by their reporters: it’s the force and blatancy of Murdoch’s political influence through those papers. Although responsibility for the appalling conduct of his papers ultimately rests with Murdoch, the blame for the way he has exercised so much indirect political power lies with those politicians who have for so long knelt before him. Cameron is the latest, and may yet prove the greatest casualty. But it must be said that not even Cameron was as cynical and unprincipled in his dealings with Murdoch as Tony Blair had been.

On election day in 1992, the Sun surpassed itself with the front page headline, “If Neil Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain turn out the lights,” and once the Tories had been re-elected (and Kinnock had resigned as Labour leader) a Tory fundraiser said off the cuff that they really owed their victory to the tabloids. This remark produced the gloatingly boastful front page announcing: “It was the Sun wot won it.” It probably wasn’t, but Blair was persuaded that it was.

As soon as he became Labour leader in 1994 he set about making an alliance with Murdoch, flying to Australia the following year to address News Corp (with a speech that placed him clearly to the right of any of his predecessors). Sure enough, the Sun supported Blair through three elections, and the Times became the veritable Pravda of New Labour, enjoying a quite uncanny insight into Blair’s mind, through the medium of his mephitic media spokesman, Alastair Campbell.

Both papers were regularly spoon-fed stories. The date when Blair would call the 2001 election was leaked to the Sun even before Downing Street bothered to inform the queen as head of state. Lance Price, who worked inside Blair’s Downing Street, has said that they always felt that Murdoch was the invisible twenty-fifth presence at the Cabinet table, and no journalist was closer to Downing Street than Tom Baldwin of the Times, who often seemed to be Campbell’s ventriloquist’s dummy.

This alliance was fully exploited in the months leading up to the needless and illegal invasion of Iraq. Murdoch himself said of the invasion that “the greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy, if you could put it that way, would be $20 a barrel for oil,” but the Sun perhaps thought such brutal candor too much for its readers. Instead it brazenly asserted on March 15, 2003 that “Saddam has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, and he’s not going to give them up,” while the Sun’s columnist Richard Littlejohn wrote that there would be war “unless Saddam Hussein hands over his weapons of mass destruction. He’s got them. We know he’s got them. He knows we know he’s got them.”

This sordid and manipulative relationship between the Blair regime and the press was on most repellent display when Downing Street surreptitiously leaked the identity of David Kelly, the weapons inspector who, dismayed by this shameless barrage of propaganda, told the BBC in an off-the-record interview that Downing Street’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were grossly exaggerated.

After Blair himself privately took the decision to “out” Kelly, hints were dropped and journalists were nudged towards his identity. The Financial Times was the first to name Kelly, but the Murdoch papers followed quickly behind. Kelly was dragged before a parliamentary committee to be bullied and insulted. Two days later he killed himself.

One might have thought that after all this honorable Tories would shy away from any close relationship with Murdoch (or at least try to play it down), but Cameron too was in thrall. In July 2007 he hired Andy Coulson as “director of communications,” or his own answer to Campbell. It’s all too significant that the nearest thing to a real job Cameron ever had before he entered parliament was as head of PR for a shady second-rate television company, Carlton Communications, when he was by no means renowned for complete scrupulosity.

At the time Coulson was hired, the Tories had fallen behind in the polls, and lost their nerve. He was recommended to Cameron by George Osborne, as Rebekah Brooks confirmed to the parliamentary committee. Osborne is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, and one can only pray that he shows more prudence in guarding the public finances. Cameron and Osborne were acutely aware of their own background as the expensively educated sons of rich families, who had once dressed up in blue tailcoats with the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford. They badly wanted someone like Coulson who knew how to speak to the masses because he belonged to them.

And yet Coulson had just been obliged to leave the editorship of the News of the World under the first clouds of the hacking scandal. Then the clouds grew darker. Before the election, Cameron was privately warned by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian (which has led the way with the hacking story) that evidence likely to be heard in a forthcoming murder trial would be very damaging to Coulson, because of his involvement with a crooked private investigator.

Still Cameron persisted in bringing Coulson into Downing Street. He stayed even after the New York Times Magazine reported last September on his direct complicity in the hacking. On October 5, Cameron said that “we haven’t had one single complaint about how [Coulson] has done his job … He’s someone who serves the government and actually runs a very good press office.” Coulson only left Downing Street in January, when the clouds had opened and hail poured down.

If Cameron’s folly in hiring Coulson in the first place is inexcusable, his stubbornness in sticking with him as he became more and more of a liability seems incomprehensible—until an answer presents itself. There is every reason to think that Cameron actually wanted a liaison officer with News International, a direct link to Murdoch. Well, he got that, and look where it landed him.

All of this has provided Ed Miliband with his first opportunity to shine, after many lackluster months since he became Labour leader last September. He has duly taken it, and pummeled Cameron to very good effect, in the process severing all links with Murdoch. Miliband’s declaration of independence came when he said, following the revelations, that Murdoch shouldn’t be allowed to acquire BSkyB. In the event, Murdoch himself withdrew from the bidding, doubtless a tactical retreat in the hope that he could return, although that deal is now politically inconceivable.

“With 20-20 hindsight and all that has followed,” Cameron told the Commons, “I would not have offered him the job and I expect that he wouldn’t have taken it. ” One might think that that no hindsight was needed, only elementary judgement, or the basic cunning known as self-preservation. Miliband can easily deride Cameron on this score — and yet whom has Miliband hired as his “director of strategy and communication”? None other than Tom Baldwin.

Funnily enough, while still with the Times last year, Baldwin had broken the exclusive — and riveting — story that Ed was going to run for the party leadership against his brother David Miliband, until then the hot favorite. Scarcely had he taken up his new job in January when Baldwin sent instructions to Labour front-bench MPs to “guard against anything which appears to be attacking a a newspaper group out of spite”. There are no prizes for guessing which group he had in mind. A political leader with hands completely clean of Murdochian taint is still to seek.

There is no reason to think that the News of the World’s dirty tricks were confined to the Murdoch tabloids, or that the popular press will clean up its act: until hacking became an overwhelmingly and unavoidably big story, there had been a deafening silence on the subject from the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. What has happened again and again after past scandals has been a pretence of contrition, a period of restraint, and then, like a dipso unable to resist the bottle, a return to the bad old ways.

So far the tabloids’ response has been shrilly to denounce the BBC’s coverage of the story, and to rail against the prospect of statutory regulation of the press. There is in truth now an urgent need for reform of media law, taking in libel and privacy and with a clearly defined public-interest defense. But then we’ve been promised that for years, and we’re still waiting.

All the same, one thing can be confidently said: Rupert Murdoch’s huge influence over British politics has ended. The spell is broken. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat cabinet minister who had already tangled with Murdoch, has compared the mood at Westminster with the public ecstasy when a tyrant falls. Meantime Cameron loftily says that we should “learn the lessons and use this as a cathartic moment.” Indeed so, and the first lesson is that in future, billionaire media magnates should be left alone by prime ministers, and not asked in through the back door.

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