David Cameron’s promise that Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the phone hacking scandal will have the power to call Prime Ministers past and present to give evidence, could open up a Pandora ’s Box of examples where senior politicians have bowed to the hidden commercial agendas of media proprietors.
Whether it was the decisions of Margaret Thatcher’s government to wave through Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of The Times and the launch of Sky Television or Tony Blair’s willingness to turn a blind eye to Murdoch’s near monopoly of Premier League television rights and predatory pricing by the Murdoch press, the British media scene is littered with examples of where successive governments have debased themselves in return for favourable coverage.
In the run-up to the 2010 general election David Cameron demonstrated the lengths which he was prepared to go in return for press support: he repeatedly praised – and fed – the Sun’s campaigning style of journalism; he promised to curb the output of the BBC; and take action to neuter the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.
The full extent of the behind-the-scenes negotiations over Murdoch’s bid for full control of BSkyB would be another suitable line of inquiry for Lord Justice Leveson.
But if the judge is looking for chapter and verse on the collusive nature of private conversations between a Prime Minister and media magnate, he should examine the transcripts of conversations between Blair and Murdoch which were released under the Freedom of Information Act in 2008, a year after Blair left office.
The file is headed “Disclosable extracts of information not already disclosed.”
A note of a meeting between Blair and Murdoch on 29 January 1998 could not have been more explicit: “The Prime Minister said that he was instinctively sympathetic to what Murdoch was aiming to achieve”... (inter-active digital satellite services which had been cleared by UK regulators but which were being blocked by the European Commission).
A telephone call from Murdoch to Blair on 31 July 2002 – in the long lead-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq – was a telling illustration of the reciprocal nature of the relationship:
“Rupert Murdoch praised the Prime Minister for his position of Iraq and said that his newspapers would strongly support the government on Iraq and foreign policy”.
The Sun’s support for “Our Boys” serving in Iraq and later in Afghanistan never wavered and it was not until the run-up to the election when Cameron promised extra danger money and a tax holiday for troops on the front line as part of a Forces’ charter that the Sun started moves to switch its support from Labour to the Conservatives.
Political journalists working for national newspapers are only too well aware of the need to steer clear of the commercial agendas which are so important to their proprietors and the same goes for most Conservative and Labour MPs who understand the terms of trade between politicians and the press and are soon reminded of what is at stake for their party if they try to cause trouble.
Over many decades newspapers have built up mass circulations on the back of political campaigning and the most successful publishers became formidable players on the political stage, be it the Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook of earlier years or more latterly Rupert Murdoch; they have all been feared and also courted by the Prime Ministers of their day.
When the tone and direction of the day’s coverage can be determined at the owner’s whim, press reporters realise that however significant the events at Westminster might be, they cannot be entirely oblivious of the political leanings of the their own paper when writing up their stories.
Would it be wishful thinking to imagine that if Lord Justice Leveson does bring in some effective controls over the relationships between governments and the media – and if there is a register of all meetings between politicians and proprietors – that journalists would be less inclined to reflect their owners’ political leanings?