Having been disadvantaged so often by the ability of the Murdoch press to deliver politically-inspired exclusives, I found Rebekah Brooks’ testimony to the Leveson Inquiry a telling confirmation of what I and most other journalists had always suspected: the Sun and the News of the World had no scruples when it came to exploiting the privileged access which their editors enjoyed in return for the political endorsement of their papers.
Unless a Prime Minister or relevant minister was prepared to comply and give their backing to the latest editorial campaign, the story line could just as easily be turned against the government of the day. But surprisingly often – despite Rebekah Brooks’ denial that threats were ever made – the Sun and the News of the World succeeded in gaining precisely the ministerial support they were seeking.
Brooks was challenged repeatedly (11.5.2012) over the role she played behind the scenes in gaining government backing for a succession of campaigning initiatives – from the “Sarah’s law” campaign to identify paedophiles, to the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith over the “Baby P” affair and finally David Cameron’s decision to order the Metropolitan Police to re-open the files on the missing youngster Madeleine McCann.
Although the inquiry’s counsel Robert Jay QC failed to question Brooks on the impact of these manufactured story lines on the behaviour of the rest of the news media, she perhaps inadvertently gave the clearest possible exposition of why both Labour and Conservative spin doctors have always been so keen to adopt a policy of divide and rule when dealing with journalists.
My first experience of the ease with which the Sun (and also then the Sunday Times) could by-pass the official Whitehall machine and obtain access and information denied to other journalists was during the industrial disputes of the 1980s.
Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch had the shared mission of defeating the British trade union movement, an objective laid out so clearly at their hitherto secret lunch at Chequers in February 1981. Time and again, especially during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the Sun and the Sunday Times exploited their preferential access to ministers to obtain exclusive stories denied to other labour and industrial correspondents.
Providing equal access to all journalists is an anathema to a spin doctor: it gets in the way of trading planted stories with favoured news outlets. If in return a minister has occasionally to give his or her backing to the latest story-line being manufactured at Wapping that is a considered a small price to pay.
In the words of Alastair Campbell “divide and rule” is the only tactic to adopt; as long as he maintained the confidence of key journalists on some of the most influential newspapers, he believed the rest of the pack would have little alternative but to follow in the wake of the exclusives which he was releasing.
As deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World and then of the Sun Brooks he had become friendly with the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. His advisers and press secretaries were “a constant presence in my life for many years” and she agreed they had made sure that was the case; New Labour had embraced the media a different way and that had opened up new opportunities for journalists to gain access.
She agreed with Robert Jay that in return for the Sun’s endorsement of Blair in three general elections, the paper had obtained scoops. “ I would like to think we were the first to get scoops...it was down to Trevor Kavanagh and Tom Newton Dunn (political editors).” Jay: “They were fed to you?” Brooks: “Not all of them, no...Trevor Kavanagh and I had some good sources.”
Jay inquired about the Sun’s exclusive after the 2005 general election when Gordon Brown’s hopes of becoming Prime Minister appeared to have been dashed because Blair had confided to the Sun that he would after all lead Labour for a full five more years and might fight a fourth general election. After Brooks refused to reveal Kavanagh’s sources, Jay asked: “Was it Blair himself who planted this story in the Sun?” Brooks: “I cannot tell you that at all.”
Brooks mounted a strong defence of publication in the News of the World of the names and photographs of known paedophiles as part of the paper’s campaign in support of “Sarah’s law” which she launched as editor in 2000 and which was continued by her successor Andy Coulson.
Despite being pressed by both Jay and Lord Justice Leveson to justify a sensationalised campaign which led to reprisals, the all-important follow-up questions were missed: How was it that News of the World managed to secure endorsement for “Sarah’s law” from successive Labour Home Secretaries including Dr John Reid and Jacqui Smith and the Justice Secretary Jack Straw?
Jay did explore Brooks’ behind-the-scenes role as editor of the Sun in calling for action over the death of “Baby P” and its successful campaign in 2008 for the dismissal of Sharon Shoesmith, Haringey’s director of children’s services. Brooks denied telling Ed Balls, then Children’s Secretary, to get rid of Shoesmith or the “Sun would turn on him.” But the editorial line was clear in calling for her dismissal and Brooks agreed that Balls was “under no illusion that was the point of the telephone call.” The campaign attracted 1.4 million signatures and Shoesmith was sacked after twenty-six days.
Again Jay missed follow-up questions which were crying out to be asked: What prior discussions had there been with David Cameron who launched the Sun’s campaign for Shoesmith’s dismissal with a signed article and who became the only party leader to endorse calls for her sacking? What liaison had there been with Andy Coulson ,then the Conservative Party’s director of communications, and who had worked with her on the “Sarah’s Law campaign?
Brooks revealed that as editor of the Sun she had been “instrumental” in starting the process that led the paper to abandon its support for the then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the 2009 Labour Party conference. She started having discussions in June 2009 with Rupert and James Murdoch about the paper’s political realignment in case there was a snap general election.
But the announcement resulted from a collective decision taken in September after further discussions with Sun’s new editor Dominic Mohan and political commentator Trevor Kavanah and political editor Tom Newton Dunn. “Yes I was instrumental in that...but it was a collective view...that we would distance ourselves from the Labour Party.”
Although Jay discussed with Brooks the advance warning which James Murdoch gave to David Cameron that the switch would be made in September, she was not asked whether Coulson had played a role behind the scenes.
Brooks denied that as chief executive of News International she had spoken to either the Prime Minister David Cameron or the Home Secretary Theresa May during the Sun’s campaign in November 2011 to persuade the government to order a review into the disappearance of the youngster Madeleine McCann.
Jay asked if she had requested the Prime Minister’s intervention because the “Sun had supported him at the general election?” Had she gone further and warned Cameron that unless No.10 ordered a review, the “Sun would put the Home Secretary on the front page every day until the Sun’s demands were met?”
Brooks: “No, I didn’t say to the Prime Minister that I will put the Home Secretary on the front page...I know Dominic Mohan or Tom Newton Dunn will have spoken directly to the Home Office.”
Lord Justice Leveson: “Were you part of a strategy that involved your paper putting pressure on the government with this sort of implied or expressed threat?”
Brooks: “I was part of a strategy to launch a campaign to get a review for the McCanns...but threat is too strong...We were trying to persuade them.”
Jay: “The government yielded to your pressure?”
Brooks: “Perhaps convinced by our argument.”
Whatever the true of nature of the “pressure” that was used by the fifth day of the serialisation of Kate McCann’s book Madeleine, the Sun achieved the result it desired and the front page trumpeted the paper’s success: “PM: I’ve reopened Maddie files.” (Sun, 13.5.2011) David Cameron’s letter to the McCanns was reproduced on an inside page alongside a signed article from Theresa May saying that she “welcomed the Sun’s role in making sure that her case is not forgotten.”
During her day long testimony to the Leveson Inquiry, Rebekah Brooks’ denials often flew in the face of what had in fact been published by the Sun and the News of the World. But given her evidence of how easily governments were encouraged to help write the headlines of the day for the Murdoch press, future ministers should take heed.
Colluding with one media group at the expense of their competitors – and failing to provide equal access for all journalists – is the start of a slippery slope that can end in a degree of collusion that has stained British journalism as well as British politics. END