Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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.

David Cameron’s former spin doctor Andy Coulson gave an assured account of himself before the Leveson inquiry into press standards – he certainly avoided giving any incriminating answers about the way the coalition government dealt with News Corporation’s controversial bid for full control of BSkyB.

Coulson did admit that he when he became the Downing Street director of communications in May 2010 he overlooked mentioning his own potential conflict of interest – in holding News Corporation stock options worth £40,000 – but he insisted he had no involvement in discussions over the aborted take-over bid.

Unlike Rupert and James Murdoch when offering their evidence to the inquiry, Coulson avoided making comments or asides and he stood loyally by the Prime Minister (who had give him a “second chance”) and by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne who had recommended him for a job with the Conservative Party after his resignation from the editorship of the News of the World

It seemed the harder Robert Jay QC, the inquiry counsel, tried to lead Coulson into offering fresh insights – even when backed up by Lord Justice Leveson – the easier it became for the former spin doctor to close down potentially incriminating lines of inquiry.

During an evidence session lasting for two and a half hours, Coulson’s repeated refrains were a variation of the same themes:  “No, I don’t recall any discussions...I am not sure what I knew which day...No I don’t know what he was thinking...” and so it went on.

Despite seven hours of questioning at the Leveson Inquiry – and his abject apologies for the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World – Rupert Murdoch was not challenged directly over the reasons for the “culture of illegal payments” which the Metropolitan Police have alleged became a regular practice among some journalists at the Sun.

Murdoch was clearly troubled by the recent arrests of Sun journalists – “great journalists, friends of mine” who had been with the paper for twenty to thirty years; and he explained at length the steps News Corporation had taken at considerable cost to introduce new ethical procedures. (26.4.2012)

But although counsel for the inquiry, Robert Jay QC – and Lord Justice Leveson himself – asked repeatedly about the culture which tolerated illegal phone hacking at the News of World – and then covered it up as Murdoch claimed – there were no follow up questions about Scotland Yard’s allegation that authorisation had been given at a senior level in the Sun for the payments of “regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money” to police and public officials.

Yet the Sun was the newspaper which Murdoch said mirrored his views and he insisted that the company’s new editorial standards demonstrated that it was still possible to produce the Sun – the “best newspaper” in Britain – without the bad practices which had previously been disclosed.

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.”

Rupert Murdoch asked to see Harold Wilson in Downing Street in January 1976 to seek a relaxation of the Labour government's pay policy...just one of the private conversations which Murdoch held over the last four decades with Prime Ministers of the day.

Hitherto secret meetings which have now been revealed in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry include not only the meeting with Wilson but also a lunch at Chequers with Margaret Thatcher in January 1981 to discuss his bid to buy Times Newspapers and a second previously undisclosed meeting between David Cameron and Murdoch after News Corporation made its aborted bid to take full control of BSkyB.

What is not in doubt is that Murdoch’s diary of engagements and telephone conversations with successive British Prime Ministers would – if it could be obtained – make a prize exhibit at the Leveson Inquiry.

As yet more details emerge of Murdoch’s covert discussions over both the ownership and operation of his media companies the greater becomes the necessity for Lord Justice Leveson to draw lessons from the collusion of the past to produce a framework of safeguards for the future.