Declarations made so far about the meetings which have been held between ministers and media proprietors make a mockery of David Cameron’s promise of a new era of openness. If there is to be accountability and an end to the collusion of previous years, there has to be a meaningful explanation of the nature and outcome of all such discussions.
Cameron and his cabinet colleagues have honoured their undertaking to list meetings with media executives and editors in the fifteen months since the general election but they have hidden behind euphemisms such as “general discussion” and failed to reveal either the extent or purpose of their deliberations.
Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry has been charged with the task of recommending new measures to govern the “future conduct of relations between politicians and the press.” The only way to ensure these relationships are properly policed is by enforcing a code of conduct which requires full transparency on the part of both the government and shadow ministers.
A robust working relationship between politicians and journalists is a test of a well-functioning democracy. But political collusion of one form or another is in the DNA of Britain’s national press. Over the decades daily and Sunday newspapers have built up mass circulations on the back of political campaigning, and the most successful publishers established themselves as 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 but none more so than Murdoch. For almost forty years his national newspapers were deployed to gain maximum political and business advantage as he built up a group with an unprecedented cross-media reach. He backed the Conservatives from the late 1970s, swung behind Labour in 1997 and then switched back to the Tories in 2009.
In return for editorial support, successive media proprietors have benefited commercially. Governments have either been prepared to turn a blind eye to anti-competitive practices such as predatory pricing or side-stepped the regulations. In Murdoch’s case, Margaret Thatcher’s administration waved through his purchase of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981 and then gave the go-ahead for the launch of Sky Television in 1989.
History was about to repeat itself in July 2011: the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was on the point of giving approval for Murdoch’s attempt to take full control of BSkyB. But the bid stalled and had to be abandoned during the storm of protest which followed The Guardian’s report that the News of the World had tapped into – and even deleted – messages left on the mobile phone of the murdered school girl Milly Dowler.
Final clearance of the BSkyB deal was averted by a matter of days but it would have been considered just reward for the staunch support given to David Cameron by the Sun and the other News International titles in the run-up to the 2010 general election. With the help and guidance of the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, Cameron had gone to extraordinary lengths to woo Murdoch and his son James, promising that an incoming Conservative government would strip the broadcasting regulator Ofcom of its policy-making functions, cut back the output of the BBC, and ease up on the rules regarding cross media ownership.
Precisely who said what to whom, from Coulson’s hiring by the Conservatives in May 2007 through to polling day three years later, and then during the period since the election is now a matter for the Leveson inquiry. The judge’s tasks include inquiring into the “contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians” and to make recommendations about the “future conduct of relations between politicians and the press.”
When Cameron announced Leveson’s appointment, he tried to keep one step ahead of the inquiry by proposing an immediate amendment to the ministerial code to require ministers to “record all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, senior editors and executives – regardless of the nature of the meeting.” Permanent secretaries and special advisers would also be required to record any such meetings; the information would be released on a quarterly basis.
Almost immediately Cameron, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and the Labour leader Ed Miliband listed their meetings since taking office. But their declarations made a mockery of the need for transparency because except for identifying who, when and where they met, the lists gave no hint as to either the purpose or the outcome of their deliberations.
Cameron used the catch-all term “general discussion” alongside eight of the entries for meetings with either Rupert or James Murdoch or one or other of the News International editors. There was no indication as to the topics which might have been covered nor was there any clue as to what transpired during Rebekah Brooks’ two visits to Chequers or the Prime Minister’s social engagements with James Murdoch and other News International executives.
If the Leveson inquiry is to come up with meaningful recommendations it must recognise that collusion takes many forms: media proprietors can assist the government of the day with blatant party political propaganda.
Past editions of the Sun reveal the sheer inadequacy of Cameron’s declaration. His engagements for August 2010 listed Rebekah Brooks’ second visit to Chequers but made no mention of the discussions which must have preceded the publication of a two-page spread and signed article by the Prime Minister which launched a hotline for Sun readers to expose “benefit scroungers”. (Sun, 12.8.2010)
Similarly, his five engagements in October 2010 with Brooks and News International editors made no reference to another two-page spread and signed article which provided Cameron with a platform to re-launch the “Big Society”. (Sun, 8.10.2011)
Negotiations with the Sun’s editorial team might have been conducted by Coulson himself or brokered by Downing Street’s team of special advisers but the point remains: politicians and their spin doctors socialise with media proprietors, executives and editors for a purpose and the outcome needs to be declared.
If the “future conduct of relations between politicians and the press” is to be policed effectively, the Leveson inquiry must insist that ministers can no longer hide behind terms like “general discussion”. A code of conduct should ensure full transparency:
Ministers should avoid meeting or socialising with proprietors, executives and editors when a take-over bid or similar application or referral is being considered by the government or regulators such as Ofcom, the Competition Commission and Office of Fair Trading.
Ministers, party leaders, shadow ministers and special advisers must list not only the date and nature of meetings and social engagements but also the purpose and any outcome.
Full declaration is required of negotiations aimed at securing party political promotions in newspapers and other media outlets e.g. signed articles, endorsement of press campaigns, exclusive interviews etc