Murdoch and the big lie

The malign political influence of the Murdochs poses a fundamental challenge to British democracy. This will not be dealt with by selling off the ownership of their papers, welcome though this might be, or the removal of their influence from BSkyB on the grounds that the Murdochs are not fit and proper people. The scandal has now clarified a far more breathtaking question: is Britain governed by a big lie?

The extraordinary importance of the question can be illuminated by comparing it to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, another critical turning point in the collapsing legitimacy of the UK’s political order.

Tony Blair willfully misled parliament and voters by claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that threatened directly the interests of the UK. This was a contrived excuse for the war; known in everyday language as a lie (something the Americans admitted openly). While intensely damaging for our democracy, we were not, however, misled about the actual policy.

To this day Blair, David Miliband, David Cameron et al say it was right to support the Americans at the time. Her Majesty’s Government was not pretending not to be doing what it was actually doing – in this sense it was honest. It was only lying about the justification for doing it.

We now face an altogether more profound falsehood: a government that flatly denies doing what it is doing. The Prime Minister told the BBC on its flagship Andrew Marr show that when it came to his government and the Murdochs, “It would be absolutely wrong for there to be any sort of deal and there wasn’t… There was no grand deal”.

This is a big lie. There was a deal. It was indeed wrong. We should not just be talking about the Murdochs, we should focus on the heart of the problem: the government.

The Rubicon

The Murdochs and the Conservatives “shared” the code-name ‘Rubicon’ for the BSkyB bid that would have led to its complete takeover by NewsCorp. In an email of 11 January 2011 that would make a classicist shudder, James Murdoch’s Director of Public Affairs even reports a conversation with Jeremy Hunt’s office about “the Rubicon process”.

Fortunately the ‘process’ was wider than the Rubicon itself, a river south of Ravenna in northern Italy that Julius Caesar crossed with his legion to challenge the Roman Republic. It was his point of no return. He went on to become Dictator and although assassinated turned the Roman Republic into an Empire.

The British ‘Rubicon’ was not traversed. Had it been, the plotters within Westminster would have granted domination of the country’s media to the triumphant conqueror of American television and the Wall Street Journal. But what is the state of our ‘Rome’, now that we have, for the moment at least, escaped this fate? The great nineteenth century chronicler of The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot, saw it as a unique, ermine-clad, uncodified but nonetheless vigorous ‘republic’, more effective and equally as vital as the United States’.

Can we return to such self-confidence now that Murdoch’s prurient legion of hackers, corrupt police, and fixers have been turned back? Will the vigour of our press be secure if its wealthiest defenders are an assortment of Oligarchs? We can celebrate that we are a freer, less intimidated country. Yet the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry could still be another ‘soon-to-be-forgotten’ report, its testimony merely video of the convulsions of a proud but dying system.

Last year, in a long post – After Murdoch – written fast as the Milly Dowler ‘firestorm’ created the Leveson Inquiry and ruined the BSkyB bid, and before Murdoch and Son had been summonsed to appear before the Parliamentary Select Committee, I asked how it was possible for Murdoch to have gained the power he did.

Now, in the wake of the three days of Murdoch testimony, one by James and two by Rupert, the publication of the Rubicon emails (see the pdf) between the office of the Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, and that of James Murdoch (which must surely lead to Hunt’s resignation before long), and after the new Report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, three specific issues can be clarified. How they are resolved will shape the future of British politics.

First: Was there an across-the-board deal or understanding, or what in a grave and thoughtful column Peter Oborne calls a “Grand Bargain”, between the two teams of the Conservative leadership of Cameron and Osborne and the Murdochs, Rupert and James?

Second: We know in detail that there was widespread criminal intrusion and the corruption of police and public officials (and maybe worse) by Murdoch staff and their agents, in News International’s News of the World, across the early years of this century. This was followed by a systematic cover-up by both News International and Scotland Yard after the Royal Editor of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, was sentenced to jail in January 2007. Did Rupert and James Murdoch know about or connive in these illegal activities? Were they holding the reins when they were happening and/or during the cover up?

Third: The cover up originally scapegoated Goodman. His editor, Andy Coulson, claimed Goodman was a “rogue reporter” acting alone and falsely claimed ignorance of hacking. But he resigned as it had taken place “on my watch”. He was then hired by David Cameron and George Osborne to handle the Conservative party’s messaging in the run up to the 2010 election. Did Cameron and Osborne also participate in the cover up through ‘willful ignorance’ and by turning a blind eye to the evidence of the Murdochs’ acting illegally, as they developed their media strategy with Coulson and in many meetings with the Murdochs and their people?

The questions are linked. If ‘no’ is the answer to all of them there is only a minor problem, one that Leveson can deal with easily.

If the answer to the first is ‘yes’ and the second two ‘no’, then there was a worked out understanding or “grand deal” – but Cameron and Osborne entered into it with two basically decent if tough chaps, Murdoch and Murdoch, who were men of integrity unaware of and opposed to any illegality. Such a deal would have been wrong, arguably profoundly wrong, but perhaps that’s politics.

If, on the other hand, the answer to the first is ‘no’ and the second ‘yes’, then there was no grand deal, but the Murdochs are responsible for a criminal conspiracy. In this case we have a serious problem with media behavior but not the politicians. Cameron and Osborne may have been foolish or wrong in their own policy but this was not one developed with and on behalf of the Murdoch team.

But if the answer to all three questions is “yes” then there was an extensive agreement between the heads of our government and a criminal network, made significantly worse by Cameron and Osborne being complicit in the illegality because they were aware of it (or wilfully unaware). Which means the government needs to fall.

And the answer to all three questions is “yes”.

Here is how we know.

The Grand Understanding

Those who defend it as nothing unusual present the alliance between Cameron/Osborne and the Murdochs as the kind of thing politicians do. Part of the job of political leaders is to persuade proprietors that they are like-minded. Since Margaret Thatcher ensured Murdoch could acquire the Sunday Times and the Times and they sealed their joint approach in the Falklands War, his influence as a forger of opinion and breaker of the left has been unequaled. But the Thatcher/Murdoch relationship, while I abhor it, was originally one of two outsiders taking on an Establishment they both despised.

At the start of the 80s they shared a still undefined project to turn the UK into an outpost of market fundamentalism. She then backed his ‘Falklands’, the move of his print works to Wapping, shattering Fleet Street’s craft unions and their Spanish practices. This gave Murdoch his new fortune and showed his genuine strength: an ability to identify and then boldly use ‘disruptive’ technology to change the finances of the game. He did the same with satellite television. In both cases, he claims, greater pluralism resulted. But his aim was and remains domination, thanks to being the market leader, and he used his British cash-flow to storm America, now the heart of his empire.

When Tony Blair took over the Labour Party he determined to try and prevent a Murdoch-style assault upon him of the kind that had damaged Neil Kinnock in the 1992 election. But Labour under him and Gordon Brown was clearly heading for victory over a hapless Conservative administration that had already earned the scorn of the Sun. Blair assured Murdoch of his hostility to trade unions and closed shops and his ‘toughness’, but these were views he had arrived at already, and he was allowed to proclaim his patriotism to Sun readers.

Of course this too was an understanding between them and an appalling one. The Murdochs proclaim the fearless investigative qualities of their papers and TV stations in exposing hypocrisy and wrongdoing. They could easily have researched the likelihood of WMD in Iraq, yet didn’t. Funny that. However – again without wishing to defend Blair – while it was a business relationship even if Murdoch denies this, Blair wasn’t getting himself elected by agreeing to support the expansion of Murdoch’s business and media presence into a quasi monopoly.

A decade later Cameron declared his ambition to be the ‘heir to Blair’. His political mastermind, George Osborne, is so enthralled by the quality of Blair’s cynicism that, according to Steve Richards, he even listens on his iPod to Blair’s reading the audio version of his memoirs. Perhaps naively, the two of them thought they were playing the same game as their New Labour master. But by now Murdoch was no longer a hungry outsider as he was with Thatcher, or the forger of domestic opinion through newspapers as he arguably still was in the 1990s.

In 2009 the influence of his papers was in decline but his role as a US player was now formidable and the rise of BSkyB was making him a potential monopoly player in British pay-TV. Furthermore, he was planning a pharaoh style handover to his son James, so a further thirty years of expansion of Murdoch’s power was on the agenda. The terms of trade were thus quite different. Whereas in 1979 Thatcher and Murdoch pitched themselves against the vested interests, in 2010 the Murdochs were the great vested interest – seeking to secure complete domination.

In the face of such a behemoth, a true conservative would seek to foster countervailing powers. But after January 2007 when the News of the World’s Clive Goodman was jailed for hacking royal phones, the young and eager would-be heirs to Blair got down to talking with team Murdoch about its strategy to re-shape the UK’s media environment: to castrate Ofcom and cut back on media regulation, to radically diminish the BBC, to permit NewsCorp’s complete acquisition of BSkyB, and provide the Murdochs with a massively enhanced cross-media base in the UK. This agreement involved the institutional reconfiguration of the UK’s entire media space in favour of a company that by then all politicians knew hacked celebrities, intimidated MPs and corrupted the police.

It ‘goes without saying’ that the young Tory leaders could only help the Murdochs achieve these objectives by winning the next election for which they needed positive support and negative coverage of the incumbent Gordon Brown. They had no need to explain to News International how this should be done – it was supremely experienced in such arts. So what else would team Murdoch want to talk to the Tory leaders about, other than the NewsCorp agenda? To ensure it was understood and to share and probe possible regulatory and other cultural and institutional problems and blockages and how these might best be overcome? And then to ensure they held to their agreement by locking them in with their friendship and hospitality?

And talk and meet they did. Here is a list provided by the Telegraph of known meetings between team Cameron and team Murdoch for the year after May 2010 when the new Government was formed, not including phone calls and text messages. In most months hardly a week goes by without communication. And as the Telegraph’s Damian Thompson demonstrates in an analysis of the meetings, “George Osborne was up to his neck in this”. Ian Katz in the Guardian makes an even more telling analysis of relations before the election, helped by tabulated records (see this pdf) provided to Leveson.

The article was published at Murdoch and the big lie.

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