Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Rupert Murdoch’s step-by-step retreat from his UK media interests has often been followed by yet more damning evidence about the extent of phone hacking and the alleged bribery of police and public officials. And so it was with the news that Murdoch was finally quitting as a director of his British newspapers: the announcement pre-empted another grim day at the Leveson Inquiry.

An update on the unparalleled inquiries into unlawful journalistic practices revealed that the investigation by the Metropolitan Police continues to break new ground.

Among the latest to be arrested for taking illegal payments from journalists were two officers at high security prisons; the newspapers involved were not only those of News International but also Trinity Mirror and Express Newspapers; and some of the illicit information obtained by News International’s journalists had been downloaded from stolen mobile phones.

Lord Justice Leveson was so concerned by the fast-moving nature of the criminal investigation that he asked Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers to give him a further update in September so that his report, due out in the autumn, would be based on the latest information regarding arrests and possible prosecutions.

David Cameron’s spin was straight from the pages of the New Labour text book on media manipulation: the Sun switched its support to the Conservatives ahead of the 2010 general election because its readers had already started abandoning Gordon Brown – precisely the same argument advanced by Tony Blair who claimed that the Sun switched to Labour ahead of the 1997 general election because its readers were already deserting John Major.

Like Blair before him, Cameron was giving a spin doctor’s gloss on the “chicken and the egg”: their spin was that Rupert Murdoch had no alternative but to respond to what the Sun’s readers were telling the editor and the switch would have taken place anyway, without the help of Andy Coulson – or in Blair’s case, without the efforts of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.

In Cameron’s case it wasn’t only readers but also the reporters who forced the pace on Murdoch: “You could see what was happening under my leadership of the Conservative party. Sun readers were coming over to the Conservative Party and Sun journalists told me they thought their newspaper was out of tune with its readers.”

Although Cameron agreed in response to Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry (14.6.2012), that Andy Coulson had given advice on how to win over the Sun the Prime Minister insisted that was not the reason why he was appointed the Conservative Party’s director of communications in May 2007.

Regrettably Jay did not pursue the point and Cameron was not pressed on Coulson’s role in the three years leading up to the 2010 general election and his success in reconnecting the Conservatives to the news agenda of the Sun and the News of the World.

While Sir John Major seemed only too anxious to tell the Leveson Inquiry of Rupert Murdoch’s secret threat in 1997 to withdraw the support of his newspapers, the former Prime Minister managed to skate over the impact of the enthusiastic backing which he received from the Sun in the 1992 general election and the subsequent downfall of his government amid allegations of “Tory sleaze.”

Major could not be faulted on his demolition of Murdoch’s own assertion before Lord Justice Leveson that he had never asked any Prime Minister for a favour. 

The former Premier recalled in his evidence (12.6.2012) a private dinner in February 1997, attended only by their two wives, at which Murdoch indicated he wanted see a change in policy on Europe. “If we couldn’t change our European policies his papers could not and would not support the Conservative government.”

Major was not surprised a month later when the front page of what he called Murdoch’s “house pet” announced that the Tories had been abandoned: “The Sun Backs Blair”. (Sun, 16.3.1997)

But Major’s memory seemed to be playing tricks when it came to his recollections of the 1992 general election. He maintained that although the press “were not necessarily hostile” to him, he had thought “all the way through” the election campaign that the Conservatives would win.

Yet again the Leveson Inquiry has failed to examine the nut and bolts of the political patronage which was exercised by the Murdoch press.  When giving his evidence George Osborne – one of the key strategists in the Conservatives’ 2010 general election victory – was not challenged further after stating he “could not remember a specific strategy” by the Conservatives to seek the endorsement of the Sun newspaper.

Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, let Osborne’s answer pass without a single detailed supplementary question (11.6.2012).  Jay made no mention of the signed articles and exclusive interviews given by the Conservative leader David Cameron in support of Sun campaigns.

Perhaps the most glaring omission of all was Jay’s failure to question Osborne on the pre-election support given by the Conservatives to the campaign in the Sun and the News of the World for a freeze in the BBC licence fee – a freeze which was duly delivered by the coalition government within months of the 2010 general election.

If Jay had taken the opportunity, he could have put Osborne’s answers to the test: there were repeated examples of campaigns waged the Sun and News of the World which were endorsed by Cameron and which were clearly the inspiration of the Conservatives’ spin doctor Andy Coulson,

Alastair Campbell has rarely missed an opportunity to launch a demolition job on journalism and in the second round of his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry he was given free rein to go back onto the attack: he claimed David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband were all getting “disproportionately whacked” by the press in retaliation for having given their backing to Lord Justice Leveson’s investigation into media ethics.

All three party leaders were in the frame because journalists were getting in their “revenge” on the Prime Minister for having set up the inquiry. Campbell felt the motivation for such hostile reporting should not be overlooked: he feared that deep down among politicians there was not much of an appetite to follow through any recommendations which the Leveson Inquiry might make for tightening up press regulation.  Therefore adverse press coverage could become a critical factor.

“I would not rule out the possibility of politicians thinking about how this might affect their own position vis-à-vis the next election; there is some appetite for change but I would not overstate it.”

There was a danger that the judge and the politicians might conclude that the whole issue of media ethics was so complicated and changing so fast that nothing could be done. “Too many parliamentarians want to turn away from this...they want this to go away.”

As he listened to the unfolding argument Robert Jay QC seemed nonplussed both by Campbell’s performance and by his own reaction: here was the inquiry’s legal counsel allowing a noted spin doctor to accuse journalists of habitually spinning a line yet at the same time Jay almost seemed to be encouraging Campbell to spin away about his own conspiracy theory on the motivation for the way the news media were reporting the collapse in the public’s respect for politicians.