Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

It has been a wait of nigh on thirty years to hear a chapter and verse explanation of the unprecedented access which Rupert Murdoch has enjoyed with successive with Prime Ministers as he shamelessly exploited the pages of the Sun to influence the course of British politics.

But time again as Murdoch was confronted at the Leveson Inquiry (25.4.2012) with entries from an engagement diary and telephone log which stretched back as far as a hitherto secret lunch at Chequers with Margaret Thatcher in 1981 Murdoch denied the recollections of those involved and their interpretation of events.

He was adamant that he had never used the Sun – or any of his other newspapers – to further his commercial interests.

Robert Jay QC was left floundering as he struggled to persuade Murdoch to accept that there must have been a pay-off for the Sun’s endorsement during general election campaigns; and that even if there was no empirical basis for thinking there was a quid pro quo that was at least the perception and the influence of the Murdoch press had distorted the democratic process.

Murdoch smiled enigmatically at Jay’s life line: “Yes that perception irritates me...because I think it is a myth. Everything I do every day proves it is a myth.”

 

All those who have had dealings down the years with Murdoch’s press and television companies must have been screaming at Jay to ask the necessary rejoinder:  Was Murdoch seriously trying to suggest that the repeated failure of governments to refer Murdoch’s take-overs and acquisitions to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and to other regulators was just a happy coincidence? 

Why were the business interests of News International safeguarded so frequently? Whether it was Police protection at Wapping, a loophole to keep out the trade unions or a refusal to investigate predatory pricing Murdoch had invariably managed to get his way.

His replies were a master class in obfuscation.  Unlike his son James Murdoch, he was not caught out by an electronic trail of emails and texts which revealed what has been dubbed the “back channel” of influence which operated between News Corporation’s director of public affairs Frederic Michel and Andrew Smith, the special adviser to Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Murdoch never wavered in his stance: it was Prime Ministers who initiated meetings or telephone calls and when it came to the accounts of others, from former editors Sir Harold Evans and Andrew Neil, to diarists such as Alastair Campbell and Lance Price or the likes of Woodrow Wyatt and Jonathan Aitken, he either could not remember what happened or their versions were incorrect.

When asked about his 1981 meeting with Mrs Thatcher in advance of his purchase of Times Newspapers, he denied that one of the issues was his determination to defeat the printing unions (a point faithfully recorded in Bernard Ingham’s note of the discussion): “I didn’t have the will to crush the unions, I might have had that desire but that took several years.”

He had never asked Mrs Thatcher for anything and the same went for Tony Blair. “I, in ten years he was in power, never asked Blair for anything, nor did I receive any favours.” Murdoch rejected Jay’s assertion that he must have discussed his newspapers’ support for the Iraq War during three telephone calls with Blair in 2003.  “I don’t remember the calls.”

When it came to the Sun abandoning Gordon Brown at the 2009 Labour Party Conference, Murdoch acknowledged there had been a fraught conversation.  Brown said: “Your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative to make war on your company.  I said ‘I’m sorry about that Gordon, thank you for calling’ and that was that.”

But of all the telling contradictions in Murdoch’s testimony perhaps the most revealing was his repeated mantra that the Sun was interested in political issues and not political parties.  Therefore Prime Ministers had no need to keep seeking his views: “If Gordon Brown – or any other Prime Minister – wanted my opinion he only had to read editorials in the Sun.”  Again the obvious supplementary eluded Robert Jay: how did News International’s editors know instinctively the line to take if Murdoch was not giving instructions to his editors?

Image: "Murdoch's Stooges," Daily Mirror, April 25 2012

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