Saturday, June 16, 2012

A tale of three Prime Ministers

Shortly after Rupert Murdoch sacked him as editor of The Times in 1982, the great newspaperman Harold Evans wrote a book about his experiences which he both hoped and believed would devastate the Australian media mogul.

‘Good Times, Bad Times’ remains a classic of its kind and is still pretty much essential reading for anyone wanting to enter our profession, but if the truth be told, its political impact was far more limited than its author had envisaged.

Over the ensuing decades, Murdoch’s continuing accretion of power over the UK media became by and large a subject of interest only to a few left-wing mavericks, with governments of both colours content to indulge the News International chief in the hope of winning his papers’ backing.

Then came the phone hacking affair, propelling the ‘Murdoch question’ to the centre of national debate to the point where it now threatens to eviscerate the entire UK political and media establishment.

This week’s hearings of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards might be termed a tale of three Prime Ministers, each one giving a subtly differing account of his dealings with the Murdoch empire.

Of the three, Sir John Major - who once promised to create a nation at ease with itself - was the only one who looked remotely close to being at ease with himself.

Actually his most intriguing revelation was not about Mr Murdoch at all but the man who defeated him in that 1997 election landslide.

Sir John’s estimation that Tony Blair was “in many ways to the right” of him seems to confirm my long-held suspicion that Tory governments seeking to reach out to the centre-left end up being more progressive than Labour ones which seek to appease the right.

Unlike Sir John, who admitted he cared too much about what the papers wrote about him, Gordon Brown claimed he barely even looked at them during his two and a half years in 10 Downing Street.

This was one of many scarcely believable claims which, taken together, served to undermine the credibility of what otherwise might have constituted a powerful body of evidence.

Mr Brown effectively accused Mr Murdoch of having lied to the inquiry about a 2009 conversation in which the former PM was alleged to have threatened to “declare war” on News International.

Cabinet office records appear to bear out Mr Brown’s version of events, but claiming he had nothing to do with the plot to force Mr Blair out of office might lead some to conclude he is a less than reliable witness.

The contributions from Messrs Major and Brown contained much that will be of interest to future historians, and may yet have a significant bearing on Lord Justice Leveson’s eventual recommendations.

But in terms of the impact on present-day politics, the key session of the week came on Thursday as David Cameron took the stand.

For such a renowned PR man he seemed very ill at ease, perhaps unsurprisingly given the excruciating contents of the text messages which he exchanged with News International boss Rebekah Brooks.

To his credit, though, Mr Cameron did not attempt to shy away from the responsibility for some of his more controversial actions, admitting that he was “haunted” by the decision to make former News of the World editor Andy Coulson his communications chief.

For me, the party leader who emerged with the least credit from the week was not Mr Cameron but Nick Clegg, whose decision to abstain in the vote over Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s future looked like the worst kind of gesture politics.

If they really wanted to see an independent investigation carried out into Mr Hunt’s role in handling the BSKyB bid, they would have voted with Labour, but this was no more than a cynical exercise in political positioning.

In Journal political editor Will Green’s excellent analysis of the state of the Liberal Democrats in the North-East published earlier this week, Gateshead Lib Dem councillor Ron Beadle was quoted as saying that Mr Clegg would not lead his party into the next election.

Party loyalists aside, it is becoming harder and harder to find anyone prepared to dispute that assertion.

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