Tucked away in a personal archive from thirty years of Rupert Murdoch watching was a dusty file dated May 1991 which told the tale of an ill-fated bid to expose the Sun’s malpractices. Perhaps it was no more than a mere footnote in the troubled history of Murdoch’s malign influence on British journalism but it was nonetheless a salutary reminder of the political power wielded by his newspapers.
As successive witnesses were questioned during the many months of the Leveson Inquiry, the judge and his legal counsel seemed to be working on the flawed narrative that it was Tony Blair who began the Labour Party’s overtures to win the support of the Murdoch press.
But the first tentative steps to establish a working relationship with the Sun began under Neil Kinnock’s leadership in the long lead up to the 1992 general election and, as I found to my cost, the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring of Kinnock’s inner circle would later become a template for Blair and ultimately for David Cameron.
Such was the chilling effect of Murdoch’s influence that Kinnock’s advisers had been making secret overtures long before polling day; their fear was so great that they were prepared to disregard the unethical and potentially illegal behaviour of the Sun if that was the only means of closing down damaging smear stories.
Although I am sure it was against their better judgement, Kinnock’s aides were being pushed relentlessly towards trying to reach an accommodation with the Murdoch press, an acquiescence which would come to haunt their successors.
As the Leveson hearings progressed my own ill-fated attempt two decades earlier to expose the malpractices of the Sun became a painful reminder of missed opportunities at the Royal Courts of Justice. Having seen how the dubious methods of the Murdoch press had helped distort the news coverage of the big industrial disputes of the 1980s, I was not at all surprised on my return to Westminster to see the same techniques being deployed by the Sun to sustain it trashing of the Labour leader.
My first chance to confront the Murdoch press came in May 1991 in the wake of a Sun exclusive revealing that “a millionaire friend” of Kinnock and his wife Glenys was “at the centre of a Fraud Squad probe over an alleged missing £10 million.” Kinnock’s office issued an immediate statement accepting that the “Greek Cypriot-born fashion king Charilaos Costa” had been a long standing Labour supporter. But the statement made clear that Kinnock had refused all offers of donations to “himself personally, his constituency Labour party and his office” and he was “not aware of the concerns of the Fraud Squad, nor of any allegations about missing funds.”
Not surprisingly, their appetites having been whetted, the rest of the tabloid pack was in hot pursuit. On the second day of the story the Daily Mirror gave prominence to the counter-claim by Labour’s campaign co-ordinator Jack Cunningham that the story “smacks of dirty tricks” by the Sun. I was told by lobby correspondents from other Murdoch newspapers that the Sun had received a tip off from the Fraud Squad and, after hearing from Hilary Coffman, a press officer in Kinnock’s office, that his aides shared that suspicion, I decided to investigate the provenance of the story for BBC radio. I managed to secure an interview with the Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh and to my great surprise he opened up about the origins of their exclusive and the inquiries made by the two by-lined reporters: “...one of them rang the Fraud Squad to ask for some information.”
I knew instantly Kavanagh had said more than he should have done; here he was on tape confirming that the Sun could speak directly to the Fraud Squad at a time when the Metropolitan Police had promised that it was doing all it could to stem leaks to the press and when inquiries from other journalists could get no further than the Scotland Yard press bureau.
Kavanagh’s answer was as revealing as the unexpectedly frank response given to MPs twelve years later by the then editor of the Sun Rebekah Brooks to a House of Commons select committee: “We have paid the police for information in the past.”
Armed with Kavanagh’s admission I sought reaction first from Kinnock’s chief of staff Charles Clarke, his press officer Julie Hall and finally Jack Cunningham.
Clarke asked for chapter and verse on what Kavanagh had said; Ms Hall would make no further comment; but Cunningham responded immediately with a recorded interview in which he called for a Metropolitan Police inquiry into why Fraud Squad officers were giving confidential information to the Sun. He had become increasingly concerned about unauthorised police co-operation with the Sun following a succession of stories involving alleged “incidents” outside Kinnock’s home. Cunningham confirmed – but not on tape – that he was well aware of the speculation among rival journalists that the Sun was getting regular tip-offs from an officer at Ealing police station.
Cunningham’s demand for an inquiry featured prominently in news bulletins that Saturday morning; a longer report was broadcast on Today and was followed up in later BBC radio and television news programmes; my story provided a front-page headline next morning for the Observer. Fresh impetus had been given to Cunningham’s intervention when it was revealed that Charles Clarke had contacted Scotland Yard the previous evening and had been told that if a complaint was made it would be investigated.
But almost as soon as the Metropolitan Police had issued their statement, Labour’s media team slammed their gears into reverse: no complaint would be made to the police and an instruction went out to kill the BBC’s story because it was giving further currency to the Sun’s original smear and was in danger of damaging Labour’s chances in the Monmouth by-election the following Thursday. The brutal reality was that Kinnock’s aides were accepting that to all intents and purposes the Murdoch press was untouchable; my follow-up was simply prolonging the agony and had to be stopped.
What happened next was an early illustration of the desperate circumstances which politicians would face repeatedly once they tried to grapple with the unrestrained might of the Murdoch’s newspapers. Having decided they had to kill the BBC’s story, Kinnock’s team were about to pull no punches in their denigration of my reporting no matter if that meant the Sun would remain invincible.
Nonetheless I did have the satisfaction of discovering subsequently that I had rattled the defences of fortress Wapping, if only momentarily. Once Labour pulled back and put the boot in, Trevor Kavanagh took delight in reprimanding me for the mischief I had caused. His mother had been on the phone to him, worried that he might be “wanted by the police”; Kelvin MacKenzie, the Sun’s editor, had been driving to his golf club that Saturday morning and on hearing my report on the radio had become so concerned that he had “nearly jumped out of the car and hit a roundabout.”
Kavanagh’s bleating was light relief when set against the internal BBC court martial which Kinnock’s aides had demanded in their frenzied attempts to get my story taken off the air.
Labour’s former director of campaigns and communications, Peter Mandelson had been recalled to run the party’s campaign in the Monmouth by-election and was almost certainly caught off guard. His former deputy Colin Byrne, who had become Labour’s chief press officer, telephoned the BBC’s television newsroom to ridicule my report; he said he was thinking of complaining to the BBC’s deputy director general, John Birt. Julie Hall rang the editor of BBC radio news and current affair Jenny Abramsky who was on her way to the theatre; Ms Hall complained that my story was “not news” and that instead I should have been reporting Kinnock’s statement on the health service.
I was required to compile a full account of my actions for David Aaronovitch, the head of news at BBC Westminster. Scotland Yard added their pennyworth when Superintendent Tom Lloyd of the complaints investigation bureau told the BBC their inquiries needed to go no further because the Sun had published an editorial giving a pubic assurance to the Fraud Squad that the paper “did not obtain a scrap of information from the police.”
Alastair Campbell, the Daily Mirror’s political editor, who had been on the point of becoming Kinnock’s press officer, must have got wind of my discomfort over the BBC’s inquisition into the accuracy of my reporting. He could not resist giving me an ear bashing in the House of Commons lobby: “Just typical of your boot-boy journalism...hanging a story on a quote, just reporting your own rumour.”
Campbell had been at a Burnley match that Saturday afternoon, saw the television news and told me he “nearly had heart failure” when up came shots of Kinnock which then cut to pictures of Scotland Yard. In my numerous conversations with Campbell ahead of the 1992 general election it was pretty evident he thought Labour had no alternative but to go with the flow and do whatever was possible to work with newspapers such as the Sun in the hope of neutralising the worst of their anti-Kinnock reportage.
The struggle under Kinnock’s leadership to establish a working relationship with the Murdoch press was chronicled by the celebrated Labour adviser Philip Gould in his book The Unfinished Revolution. He revealed that Charles Clarke had been to Wapping in January 1992 to see Kelvin MacKenzie in the hope of unfreezing relations with the Sun; they spent four hours, “me, Kelvin and a whole group of others going through things.”
Peter Mandelson and Colin Byrne had actively pursued a separate bridge-building exercise with the Sunday Times which was used extensively to trail policy initiatives. Andrew Grice, appointed the paper’s political correspondent the year after the move to Wapping in 1986, had a brief to report the labour movement;he became a regular conduit for exclusive stories which were intended to show that a future Labour government would not be thwarted by the trade unions.
Mandelson’s efforts to repair relations following Labour’s initial post-Wapping boycott of News International were a turning point; they fed through into the policy reviews that preceded publication of Labour’s 1992 manifesto. Kinnock agreed to adopt a less strident approach to media proprietors.
Instead of specifically targeting News Corporation, as many in the leadership had previously demanded, the manifesto commitment was limited to a promise that an incoming Labour government would “establish an urgent inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into the concentration of media ownership”. There was a similar degree of leeway over the approach to possible legal restraints on the tabloids to deal with abuses of privacy and there was no mention of the hitherto long-standing demand for a statutory right of reply.
In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Lord Mandelson said the “relentless hostility” shown towards the Labour Party by News International and other newspaper groups had been “horrible and bloody” between 1987 and 1992.
Mandelson did not challenge the assertion by Robert Jay QC that Labour began its “neutralising strategy” in 1994, only after Tony Blair had been elected leader. Instead in his replies Mandelson concentrated on the party’s post-Blair tactics. New Labour had no wish to make “permanent enemies” of News International, so “different dialogues were opened with working journalists or editors or executives including the proprietor.”
I felt that if Jay had questioned Mandelson about Labour’s pre-1992 overtures to Wapping it would have helped to illustrate the incremental growth in Murdoch’s influence; the origins of the Labour leadership’s reluctance to confront the news gathering techniques of his newspapers; and the realisation that come the next general election the task of trying to establish a working relationship with the Murdoch press would require an even more conciliatory approach.
My disappointment was compounded when Jay accepted without question the evidence of Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman; she too credited Blair as having started the process of tackling News International’s hostile coverage.Ms Harman quoted from Blair’s 2007 “feral beast” speech and his argument in favour of “courting, assuaging and persuading the media.”
Notwithstanding the fact that Labour’s first, faltering entreaties to the Murdoch press had been rebuffed and might be considered nothing more than an historical footnote, they were a key moment in the unfolding narrative. By signalling pre-1992 that they were already desperate to come to terms with the Sun’s unassailability, Kinnock’s inner circle had bolstered the bravado of its editor Kelvin MacKenzie, as evidenced by the paper’s subsequent vilification of Kinnock throughout the 1992 campaign and the infamous post-election headline “It’s the Sun wot won it!”.
Labour had been left with no alternative but to come to terms with the inherent danger for any future leader of the destructive force of the Sun’s political reporting, a lesson which the Conservatives would come to understand once MacKenzie turned the tables and subjected John Major to the treatment previously meted out to Kinnock. Extra-marital affairs involving a succession of Conservative ministers were about to provide another rich source of exclusive stories and the Sun and the News of the World would share the spoils as the Major government floundered amid the backlash from his ill-fated “back to basics” campaign and allegations of “Tory sleaze”.
Illustrations: Sun, May 9, 1991; Daily Mail, May 9, 1991; Daily Mirror May 10, 1991.
A fuller version of this article will appear in The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, second edition, to be published in September by Abramis.