Actor Hugh Grant said it as well as anyone in an interview with ABC News a while back. All that was needed to end the UK’s decades-long culture of tolerance for News International’s phone-hacking, its corrupt relations with the police, and its journalists’ habit of invading people’s privacy without good reason, was for “the politicians to grow some balls”.
Rupert Murdoch and his company got away with decades of bullying and intimidation of British politicians for one simple reason: the latter believed that his editorial support mattered to their cause, and feared to act in any way which might put that support at risk.
All, or nearly all politicians – allies and enemies of Murdoch alike - shared this perception, which duly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It was the Sun wot won it” for John Major in 1992, remember? Since Murdoch moved to the UK and bought up the Sun and News Of the World in the late 1960s, the stark fact was that no party had won a British general election without News International’s endorsement.
Cosying up to Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch was “in bed”, to use another of Grant’s phrases, with politicians of all the major UK parties, though he was a fickle lover. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, Salmond: all snuggled up beneath the sheets with Murdoch and his powerful red-top titles, hoping for his endorsement and thus the opportunity to influence their millions of mainly working class readers. Some were abandoned for a younger model – Major for Blair in 1997; Brown for Cameron in 2009. Brown, alleged Murdoch at the Leveson inquiry last week, “declared war” on News International as a result. In parliament last year, Brown described News International as a “criminal organisation”. Hell hath no fury like a former prime minister scorned.
Last week’s revelations that the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, had offered to lobby UK minister Jeremy Hunt on behalf of News Corp’s bid to take complete ownership of BSkyB was surprising, and particularly interesting for me as a Scot.
The current high level of support for nationalism and independence in Scotland is often premised on the naïve belief that Salmond and the SNP are on the left of the political spectrum, and will come to the rescue of the country against the hated Tories as they set about dismantling the post-war welfare state (with News International’s support).
Murdoch’s declaration of “warm” affection for Salmond, and his support for independence, will give that particular strand of nationalism some pause for thought.
“What would Rupert think?”
But I digress. Salmond was only doing what most British politicians have done, seeking to curry favour with the world’s most powerful media baron. His efforts, which may derail the independence campaign now underway, are merely a footnote in the bigger narrative emerging from Leveson – that Britain was, for nearly forty years, governed with more than a nod to the desires and business interests of Mr Murdoch. “What would Rupert think?” is said to have been the question routinely asked by policy makers.
To get him to think well of them, they lunched, breakfasted and dinnered with the News Corp CEO and his senior executives. They rode his horses, dropped in on his yachts as they sailed the Med, employed his former editors as their communication directors in Downing Street. In Jeremy Hunt’s case, and against ministerial rules, they fed his company inside information about the progress of News Corp’s BSkyB bid. They paid homage.
The reality of Rupert
Until, that is, the Milly Dowler case exposed the threadbare nature of the emperor’s attire, and the politicians had their moment of clarity. Yes, it took Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Sienna Miller to lead the way with risky court cases, and the Guardian newspaper to doggedly pursue the story over a period of years, but Britain’s political elites finally got up the courage to distance themselves from News Corp. Since July 2011 the UK’s political culture has shifted irreversibly.
In a previous piece for The Conversation I compared News Corp’s political influence to the Berlin Wall and Soviet-style communism. One day it was there, the next it was gone, along with the fear of what can happen to those who criticise the empire.
Those politicians who allowed their policies and their offices to be shaped by that fear are now on the defensive, constructing their alibis. Some will get away with it, others will be permanently damaged.
Who will be scarred by their association?
Salmond, for example, says he was prepared to lobby for News Corp in order to secure “Scottish jobs”. If true – and his critics believe that his offer was made for no cause more noble than to secure the Scottish Sun’s editorial support - that’s an extraordinarily parochial and shortsighted approach to policy.
While most observers believed a wholly News Corp-owned BSkyB would be bad for British democracy and culture, and in the long term hugely damaging for the BBC, which the Murdochs so despise, Salmond was prepared to offer up Scotland as a bridgehead for the expansion. And to do it in secret. That is going to take some explaining.
In Westminster, meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt will soon be toast, and David Cameron will quite probably be next in the firing line. He it was who appointed Andy Coulson to be his communications director, after the phone-hacking scandal had forced his resignation as editor of the News Of The World.
Coulson and dozens of others await criminal prosecution because of their activities at News International, and when that happens, the prime minister who employed him as one of his most trusted advisers will be very exposed indeed.
As in Britain, so in Australia?
Meantime, the revelations keep on coming; a vast treasure trove of data about how media power and politics are related in a democracy such as the UK. We academics have been analysing and writing about the abuse of their power by Murdoch and his fellow barons for decades, but never with access to such intimate and detailed accounts of how they and their political supplicants have operated.
Now we know much more about the process, and there will be years of research work for journalism professors like me in processing and making sense of it all. We have, by happenstance and accident, reached a state of unprecedented transparency in the mechanics of the media-politics relationship.
This will have a profound and positive impact, not only on British democracy, but on Australia, where similar issues lurk just over the horizon.
Finkelstein has reported, new media regulations are promised by the ALP, and an election is not too far away, with or without Craig Thomson’s resignation from Labor.
Leveson has shown us how Murdoch and his political allies operate in one country. Australian eyes will now be on how his media seek to shape the coming debate in his homeland.