Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

After the revelation that during the August holidays David Cameron paid a hitherto secret visit to Rupert Murdoch’s yacht off the Greek Islands, there have been more tell-tale signs that the Conservative leader is cosying up to the Murdoch press. In a signed article for the Sun (3.11.2008), Cameron was firmly on message in a double-page spread: “Tory chief hits out -- Bloated BBC out of touch with viewers”. Cameron hit all the right buttons: the licence fee should be reduced and the argument that the BBC needed to attract large audiences was “bogus”. But more importantly Cameron sided with Murdoch in arguing that the BBC should stop abusing its position by trying to compete with newspaper websites. Because of their heavy investment in online services -- some of which are beginning to make money -- it is essential from the Murdoch perspective that there should be no effective competition from the BBC. Cameron delivered just the line that he knew would appeal to Murdoch: “The squeezing and crushing or commercial competitors online or in publishing needs to be stopped”. Nicholas Jones says Cameron and his communications director Andy Coulson (just named pr professional of 2008) need no lessons on how to woo the Murdoch press: Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell blazed that self-same trail in the 1990s:

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There is probably a questionable relationship between the government and news media in almost every country in the world. It might be blatant state control -- outright censorship -- where a government decides precisely what journalists can and cannot say. On the other hand there could be an equally manipulative arrangement which is not obvious to the public. It is these often hidden relationships which can be so insidious in countries like the United Kingdom and the United States of America where media proprietors are quite prepared to use their newspapers, radio and television stations -- and now their websites -- to exercise political patronage and to influence the outcome of elections.

 

 

Two disclosures in the past few days have revealed how these covert relationships can -- and do -- have a significant effect on the governance of Britain. The two disclosures are also further evidence of the lengths to which British politicians are prepared to go to win the support of Rupert Murdoch, editor in chief of a media empire which he says himself has become the “globe’s leading publisher of English-language newspapers”. The first example is a note of two hitherto secret conversations between Murdoch and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in January 1998 and July 2002. In the initial conversation the Prime Minister says he is “instinctively sympathetic” towards Murdoch’s plan to establish a new European interactive digital satellite television service. And in a follow-up conversation, Murdoch says in return his newspapers “would strongly support” the British government’s demand that Saddam Hussein should be required to destroy his weapons of mass destruction, press support which Blair was desperate to retain during the long build-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Here we have a secret document which has only just been released under the Freedom of Information Act providing an open and shut illustration of collusion between a British Prime Minister and a media magnate. Blair is indicating that he will try to stop the European Commission blocking Murdoch’s latest television venture and the subsequent pay back is Murdoch promising Blair the support of his newspapers. These are not just any newspapers but include the two with the largest UK circulations (Sun 3.1 million and the Sunday News of the World 3.2 million). And when taken together with The Times and the equally influential Sunday Times, these four newspapers command a 42 per cent share of the national newspaper market.

The second equally significant disclosure of the last few days is that the Opposition leader David Cameron paid a hitherto secret visit to Rupert Murdoch’s luxury yacht when it was moored off the Greek islands during the August summer holidays. (“Cameron, Murdoch and the Greek island freebie” The Independent 24.10.2008) Again there could hardly be a more symbolic revelation as it indicates that the new Conservative leader is following exactly the same path which Blair took in trying to win the support of Murdoch’s newspapers.

What has to be understood is that Murdoch always wants -- and needs to be -- on the winning side, supporting the political party in power because in that way he can try to ensure maximum help from the government of the day for his vast commercial interests. Political beliefs are not always important. Murdoch has repeatedly switched sides in Australia just as he has in the United Kingdom. In the 1980s he was a staunch supporter of the then Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. But just before the general election in 1997, when it was clear the Conservatives under John Major were going to be defeated, he switched to Labour. Blair had flown to Australia to meet Murdoch and his executives at an island off Queensland, in the summer of 1995.

The switch in the allegiance of the Murdoch press was finally was announced in three-inch high capital letters on the front page: “The Sun Backs Blair -- give change a chance”(18.3.1997). Murdoch can sense the mood of political change which has been underway recently in Britain. There is no doubt that in recent months Prime Minister Gordon Brown has done a lot to re-establish his authority, aided by the comprehensive action which the British government has been taking to ease the current financial crisis. But the Conservatives still retain a significant lead in the opinion polls and last summer, when Murdoch played host to David Cameron, the Conservatives were even further ahead in popular opinion and everything pointed to the Opposition being well placed to win the general election which will have to be held by May 2010 at the latest.

This preparatory gear changing by the Murdoch press -- perhaps switching from Labour back again to the Conservatives -- is being mirrored in the United States where Murdoch’s newspapers and television channels like Fox News -- which have been such staunch supporters of the Republicans and George Bush -- have been having to prepare for an Obama victory in the American Presidential Election. What Murdoch watchers and campaigners for media freedom are looking for are the tell-tale signs of a shift in press support. Therefore the revelation that David Cameron was Murdoch’s guest in August was significant because it is so reminiscent of Tony Blair’s mould-breaking trip to Australia to fraternise with Murdoch’s editors and executives.

 

 

Confirmation of Cameron’s trip only came about by chance as a result of investigations by journalists into precisely where leading British politicians spent their summer holidays and who gave them hospitality. This all became an issue after it emerged that a newly-appointed cabinet minister, the Business Secretary Peter Mandelson and the Conservatives’ shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne had both been in Corfu as guests on board the yacht of the Russian aluminium oligarch, Oleg Deripaska. Both Mandelson and Osborne have suffered political damage but it could short term whereas there are more long-term implications from the Murdoch-Cameron meeting. The Conservatives’ impressive lead in the opinion polls is a reflection of an astute media strategy which has re-branded the party and projected Cameron as Prime Minister in waiting.

Much of this success has been due to the efforts of the Conservatives’ director of communications, Andy Coulson who was formerly editor of Murdoch’s largest selling UK newspaper, the News of the World and whohas been named the pr professional of 2008 by PR Week. Coulson has been trying hard to reconnect the Conservatives with the editors and senior journalists of the Murdoch press. Coulson has been working just as assiduously as Alastair Campbell did in the mid 1990s when he wooed newspapers like the Sun and persuaded them to support Tony Blair. Campbell understood the mindset of the Sun’s journalists and he knew how to pitch stories and comment which would respond to the Sun’s agenda.

Coulson has demonstrated that same flair during the fall-out from the turmoil over the row about the misconduct of two of the BBC’s celebrity presenters, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Murdoch’s has been a long-term opponent of the BBC because of the enormous income it derives from the licence fee and the way it has been able to hold on to a commanding share of television audiences despite the advances being made on his own television services on the Sky satellite channel. The Sun and the News of the World have pursued with great vigour an anti-BBC story line, as witnessed again in their coverage of the BBC’s failure to control the sordid antics of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.

 

The News of the World’s front-page splash said it all : “BBC £14million Fat Cat Scandal” (2.11.2008) which revealed that fifty BBC executives earned more than the Prime Minister. The pay rates had been forced out of the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act. David Cameron, under the guidance of the Conservatives’ communications director, jumped in next day in the Sun with a full page article: “Bloated BBC out of touch with the viewers” writes David Cameron for the Sun (3.11.2008). Cameron was careful in his approach and insisted he was a “lifelong Conservative who is a fan of the BBC” but he was right on the button in supporting the Murdoch agenda of campaigning for the BBC to be cut down to size.

He said the BBC had become “bloated” with many of its executives overpaid; the licence fee should be reduced; and the argument that it needed to attract large audiences was “bogus”. But more importantly Cameron sided with Murdoch in arguing that the BBC should stop abusing its position by trying to compete with newspaper websites. Here we see the real bottom line for Murdoch. His newspapers are investing big time in their websites; some of their online services are making money; and therefore from the perspective of the Murdoch press it is essential that there should be no effective competition from the BBC. Cameron delivered just the line that he knew would appeal to Murdoch: “The squeezing and crushing of commercial competitors online or in publishing needs to be stopped”.

Cameron and Coulson need no lessons in how to woo the Murdoch press -- Blair and Campbell blazed that precise trail in the 1990s and knew just how to appease such important commercial interests. The Blair government turned a blind eye to Murdoch’s cross media monopolies and stood on the sidelines when Sky was allowed to continue its near monopoly of televised Premier League football matches. The Brown government has been equally complicit in waving through the light-touch regulation of newspaper websites. Their audio-visual output is self regulated under the eye of the Press Complaints Commission.

Some newspapers are already offering online television services and come convergence and their ability to develop digital services, there is no doubt that Sun Tv, Telegraph Tv and a host of other innovative newspaper sites will have become serious competitors to the BBC. The closer the election gets, the more likely it will be there will be further tell tale signs of the Murdoch press abandoning Labour. The recent release of the note about Murdoch’s two conversations with Blair gives a hint of the payback that David Cameron can expect.

Earlier disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act have confirmed that Blair had three telephone conversations with Murdoch in March 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq War. After spending four years blocking the release of the details the government finally backed down the day after Blair resigned in July 2007. Vietnamese Assembly - 15

All told Blair had taken part in a total of six telephone discussions with Murdoch over a twenty month period. The three calls before the start of the American-led attack on Iraq took place within the space of nine days at a time when the Sun was unstinting in its support of Bush and Blair, praising the courage and resilience of the British Prime Minister. (Sun 20.3.2003). Despite the unpopularity in Britain of Blair’s support for George Bush in the war against Iraq, The Sun remained steadfast in its support of the Prime Minister and all four of the Murdoch newspapers urged readers to vote Labour in the 2005 general election.

Two front pages illustrate the closeness of that relationship. On the eve of the general election The Sun declared that it had got “deep down and personal with the Blairs” and the front-page headline, “Why Size Matters” (4.5.2005) led on to an inside spread which showed a tanned Prime Minister in his torso alongside some intimate quotes from his wife Cherie. In return for granting this titillating interview, The Sun repaid the compliment on polling day with a front page that urged readers to “Vote Labour Today” (5.5.2005). It showed the Prime Minister and the Chancellor dressed in red strips like Manchester United footballers and the headline said it all: “ Come On You Reds” with Blair in the No.10 shirt and Gordon Brown as the No.11. Where The Sun’s support was so critical has been over the Iraq qar and its consistent support for “Our Boys” or “The Lions of Basra (4.9.2007) as they tended to be dubbed in Sun-speak.

The supposed invincibility of the British troops was encapsulated in the report over the arrival of the Black Watch regiment in Basra: “Watch it: Our Boys off to the battle zone. We beat Napoleon, Kaiser and Hitler…it’s just another job”. (25.10.2004). When the action switched to Afghanistan, there was the same Boy’s Own style of coverage when a reporter was sent to join troops on the front line: “The Sun takes on the Taliban” (9.10.2006). So the closeness of the link between politicians and media proprietors should never be overlooked and while there is no doubt that newspaper sales are declining at some speed, the owners are doing all they can, through their investment in websites, to ensure they retain their dominant position as news and information providers in the digital, online world.

Speech by Nicholas Jones to a delegation from Vietnamese Office of National Assembly, House of Lords, 5.11.2008