Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

The role of newspapers like the Sun in offering “implacable support” for Tony Blair’s backing of the American-led invasion of Iraq was cited at the Leveson Inquiry as an example of how the Murdoch press was required to reflect the political views of its proprietor.

Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, told Lord Justice Leveson (6.2.2012) that he valued his “total freedom” as an editor – unlike the editors of The Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World who had to follow the “strong views” which Rupert Murdoch communicated to them.

Dacre claimed that Blair, as Prime Minister, would have been unable to commit the use of British forces in the Iraq War “without the implacable support provided by the Murdoch newspapers...and that came from Murdoch himself.”

Evidence which backed up Dacre’s claim – although not referred to at the inquiry – was obtained by the Glasgow Media Group in October 2008 as a result of requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Extracts from telephone conversations between Murdoch and Blair revealed the depth of Murdoch’s commitment to support the British Prime Minister.

Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, gave an assurance to the Leveson Inquiry (1.2.2012) that it would speed up its investigation into whether it has sufficient power to provide protection against media companies exercising too much political influence.

Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive, told Lord Justice Leveson that if given another chance to look again at News Corporation’s aborted bid for total control of BSkyB it would have placed more emphasis on the “risk to the democratic process.”

Ofcom’s evidence gets to the heart of one of the key challenges for the Inquiry: should there be fresh restrictions on the concentration of media power?  Campaigners for greater media plurality say that News Corporation’s level of media ownership in Britain – 39 per cent of BSkyB together with three national newspapers (The Times, Sunday Times and Sun) – is too large and should be reduced.

In his evidence to the inquiry Richards acknowledged that the absence of the power to make recommendations on the impact of media concentration on the democratic process became an issue during the investigations it conducted into News Corporation’s bid to take full control of BSkyB.

 

Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director general, spent two and a half hours in front of the Leveson Inquiry on media ethics but to my great disappointment he did not offer an opinion on the government’s six-year freeze of the licence fee, by far the greatest restraint on the quality and quantity of BBC journalism.

There could hardly have been a clearer example of the chilling effect of government interference and the threat to the plurality of the British news media – two of the key issues which Lord Justice Leveson has been asked to investigate.

When invited to comment on his relationship with politicians, Thompson insisted that he always tried to keep them at arm’s length.  But throughout his oral evidence (23.1.2012) he did not address the impact of the hurried and largely secret negotiations which he had to conduct on the BBC’s behalf in October 2010 when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government froze the licence fee for six years and effectively reduced the BBC’s spending power by 20 per cent.

Instead of exploiting the platform he had been given and dealing head on with the repercussions of the biggest setback to BBC’s independence and vitality for a generation, the director general retreated to the safer ground of his role as the Corporation’s editor in chief.

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.

Without the ability to use the Freedom of Information Act to probe the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service, the Labour MP Tom Watson doubts whether a House of Commons select committee would have made the progress it did in exposing the cover-up over the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World.

He fears that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is trying to find ways to restrict the scope of the Act – a move recommended by the former Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, and a view echoed by the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By using repeated Freedom of Information requests the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee forced the Metropolitan Police and the Director of Public Prosecutions to reveal the contents of their hospitality registers which contained details of social engagements with News International executives.

By using the Act, the committee gained the disclosure of information which otherwise would “still be hidden” and which was far more revealing than could have been obtained by parliamentary questions to ministers.