Without actually naming names, the BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten has condemned recent Prime Ministers for having kidded themselves that Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers determined the outcome of general elections. When giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry (23.1.2012), he condemned the “unseemly” behaviour of both Premiers and Opposition leaders in getting too close to Rupert and James Murdoch and their executives.
But Lord Patten did get personal when welcoming David Cameron’s decision to instruct ministers to publish a record of all their future meetings with media proprietors. He acknowledged that since becoming chairman of the BBC Trust in May last year, he would probably have met Cameron more than once if he had been a “News International executive”. Personally he saw no need to have “sleepovers” – a back handed swipe at Rebekah Brooks’ visit to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence.
One of Lord Justice Leveson’s roles is to examine the future relationship between media proprietors and politicians as it affects media plurality and regulation and Lord Patten left the judge in no doubt that the level of contact had been “demeaning” and that there was at least a perception of collusion.
But although Lord Patten rebuked Cameron for his conduct in relation to News International and its executives, he did not address – nor was he asked to – the impact of the coalition government’s decision in October 2010 to impose a six-year freeze on the BBC’s licence fee.
Cameron’s promise, as Opposition leader, in 2008 to rein in “the bloated BBC” ( in a signed article in the Sun) and freeze the licence fee was welcomed at the time by the News International titles; Cameron's attacks on the BBC were seen as an important cog in reconnecting him to the political and commercial agenda of the Murdoch press which backed the Conservatives in the 2010 general election.
The closest Lord Patten got to acknowledging the impact of the 2010 freeze in the licence fee – which has resulted in a 20 per cent cut in the BBC’s spending power – was his admission that the BBC had now become “a declining part of the broadcast economy”; never before had the BBC represented such a “small part in financial terms” of Britain’s broadcasting industry.
Earlier in his evidence, the BBC’s director general Mark Thompson told the judge there was “no evidence whatsoever” that BBC journalists had engaged in telephone hacking. But the BBC’s editorial guidelines would be rewritten in “absolutely explicit” terms to forbid the hacking of phones and computers.
After the gruelling evidence sessions faced by some previous witnesses, Thompson and Lord Patten were largely untroubled by questions from the inquiry’s junior counsel David Barr and were able to present a clean bill of health. When asked – in terms of programme making and editorial standards – about his own contact with politicians, Thompson said he preferred to keep them at “arms length”; he too did not address the hurried – and largely secret – negotiations which he conducted with coalition ministers surrounding the 2010 freeze in the licence fee.
Lord Patten made it clear that since becoming Trust chairman he had been subjected to no improper pressure from either the Prime Minister or the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He then recalled his period as minister and party chairman during the Thatcher and Major governments and said he had formed the impression that politicians had allowed themselves to be kidded into thinking newspaper editors and proprietors determined their fate. In his experience the Murdoch press backed the party which was going to win the election.
After the 1992 general election, which John Major won against the odds, he did some research as Conservative Party chairman which showed that most Sun readers thought it was a Labour newspaper, which undermined the claim of Kelvin MacKenzie that it was the “Sun wot won it” and suggested that newspapers made no difference to the outcome of elections.
“But I think it is the case that politicians have got closer to editors, journalists and proprietors over the period since 1992 and not always to their advantage...I think seeing quite so much of journalists or executives from one newspaper stable or another is not very sensible politics or a healthy democratic development.
“I would use an old fashioned word: how unseemly is it for a minister to behave in a certain way? To appear to be manipulated by some newspapers or a group of journalists does not make very good sense.”
Lord Patten said he did not necessarily blame the editors, proprietors or journalists; it was the politicians who paid a ridiculous amount of social and political attention to journalists.
“I think it probably tipped when it became the assumed truth that News International determined the outcome of elections...I would need a lot of persuading to have sleepovers for newspaper executives.”
When asked by David Barr if he had any knowledge of underhand attempts behind the scenes by media proprietors to influence politicians, Lord Paten said he had not come across it himself but assumed it was “going on”; he knew media groups pursued their own commercial interests with great vigour and were “believers in monopolies.”
“I think it does help that the Prime Minister and the other party leaders have agreed to publish, not necessarily an account, but the number of times they have meetings with the media...I think politicians will take from the events which the inquiry is examining, a recognition that getting too close to the media could become a tar baby and could leave them looking bedraggled and dishevelled.”
Lord Patten said that despite having become “a declining part of the broadcasting economy” in Britain, the BBC had not lost sight of the audience and its market share was sometimes influenced in part by market failures. For example, BBC local radio stations were becoming the only provider of local talk radio and without the BBC there would be no talk radio to speak of. “So we have been pushed into the provision of news services because of a lack of commercial alternatives.”
Illustrations Sun 3 November, 2008; City AM 20 October, 2010.
Read in full Nicholas Jones’ chapter – “How did a British Prime Minister come to depend on an ex-editor of the News of the World? – in The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, to be published by Arima Publishing, Bury St Edmunds, in February 2012.