The inquiry — chaired by Lord Justice Leveson, a judge —this week shone a light on ties between the media and politicians. The most dangerous revelations were e-mails apparently detailing contacts between News Corporation, Murdoch’s company, and David Cameron’s government during the firm’s abortive bid to buy BSkyB, a satellite-television outfit. The relationship was sometimes friendly, sometimes tense, but always close — and rarely craven on the part of the media firm.
Another milestone in the Sun’s political coverage does not seem to have earned a proprietorial rebuke. It happened in 1992, on the night that Britain was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism. The prime minister of the day, John Major, telephoned MacKenzie to ask how the Sun would be covering the story. “Actually,” MacKenzie replied, “I have a bucket of s**t on my desk, prime minister, and I’m going to pour it all over you.” Asked if this tale was true during his own appearance at the Leveson Inquiry, MacKenzie enthusiastically re-enacted it.
Mackenzie’s cheerful thuggery is unusual, even in Fleet Street. But the fact that he talked to a prime minister that way and kept his job suggests that relations between the British press and politicians are pretty unusual. Does that mean that the press wields democracy-threatening power?
The answer is complicated by the oddity of Britain’s media market. In America, News Corporation is just one of five important media firms. In contrast, its British arm is a local titan. The Sun has 2,6 million readers in a country of 60 million people: scale that up, and an American equivalent would sell 13 million copies a day. Seven British dailies have circulations larger than the biggest-selling French national newspaper.
That many titles have been out of control is not in dispute. Allegations of illegal phone-hacking, bribery and paparazzi intruding on funerals abound. But press savagery towards the rich and powerful also taps into an ancient British tradition, that of instinctive derision for the strutting toff or politician, amid the battle-cry: “Who does he think he is?”
If prodded, politicians will insist (through gritted teeth) that press savagery is vital to democracy. They are more skittish about whether they think newspapers decide elections.
In his memoirs, Tony Blair — whose 1997 win was preceded by an endorsement by the Murdoch press — writes about a 1995 flight to address a News Corporation conference in Australia –– a pilgrimage that outraged the left. Blair explains himself with a rhetorical question.
Murdoch newspapers had hitherto been “rancorous in their opposition to the Labour Party”. On being invited into the “lion’s den”, Blair argues: “You go, don’t you?”
Addressing the inquiry, Murdoch told how relations with Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, soured after his newspapers switched their support from Labour to Cameron’s Conservatives. Once he and Brown swapped tales of Scottish ancestors and their young children played together, he said. When his papers turned, Murdoch claims that Brown called to declare “war” on his companies. As for Cameron, when the furore about press abuses took off in 2011, he declared that all party leaders had turned a blind eye to warning signs, because they were “so keen to win the support of newspapers”.
Newspaper campaigns clearly influence policy-making. Former Blair aides have credited Murdoch, a tireless Eurosceptic, with helping to keep Britain out of the euro. But arguably their greatest day-to-day influence is indirect. British political leaders are drawn from an increasingly narrow, metropolitan pool. When tabloids bellow that they know the mind of the ordinary voter, it requires some self-confidence for an Oxbridge-educated, sushi-munching minister to ignore them.
Britain is an outlier in other ways. In lots of European countries politics encompasses angry extremes, with the hard-right and far-left attracting hefty votes. By contrast, newspapers in such countries are often small-circulation, centrist, and prim. Britain does things the other way round. Partly because of first-past-the-post voting, the big parties cluster at the political centre. The brass-band blare of dissent comes from a fiercely partisan press.
Optimism may be hard to conjure but the current stink could signal a general cleaning of the stables.
Political leaders have already opened their diaries to disclose meetings with proprietors and editors. In parallel, fresh scandals over party fund-raising have revived efforts to reach a cross-party deal on donations, perhaps by capping the sums that individual donors can give.
Such reforms could help, says a senior politician. Donors, editors and proprietors have less influence than is commonly assumed. But they have enjoyed excessive access to party leaders, who for years devoted too much time to meeting them.
Transparency over diaries should reduce such contacts. A cap on donations would do the same. If politicians meet media bosses and donors more sparingly and simply as professional contacts, that would be a good thing.
Such a change is overdue. Journalists and politicians can never be truly friends. Lowly reporters and MPs always knew this: given a big enough story, each will turn on the other. For too long, their respective bosses seemed to forget. Not any more. –– Economist.