|How Guardian's Steve Bell covered Blair's appearance|
The closeness of PMs to the press owners (press barons still?) has been an issue for at least a century (see Toynbee article below), but when PM Thatcher knighted/ennobled several right-wing proprietors and editors, it seemed the walls between the fourth estate and those it is meant to hold to account could not be brought any lower. We're seeing this come out every day in Leveson: our PM is close pals with various key Murdoch employees; the Culture Secretary and his special advisor swapping 100s of emails and text messages with News Corp's PR chief. Gordon Brown rather desparately brought together a motley crew:
The media mogul also recalled a time of better relations with the Browns, when Sarah Brown, the then prime minister's wife, hosted a "slumber party" attended by Brooks, Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, and his daughter Elisabeth. Smiling at the recollection of the "pyjama party", Murdoch sought to downplay the intimacy of the event, saying it was "just a bunch of women, complaining about their husbands probably".(This was from Murdoch's 2011 evidence to Leveson) None of them, arguably, went quite as far as Blair, who become godfather to Rupert Murdoch's child with his new wife.
This extraordinary level of closeness fuels the wide belief that our most senior politicians have made deals with Murdoch to gain his papers' support:
This comes from an article about Lance Price's (former press spokesperson for PM Blair) book:At the end of last year Lord Mandelson said the Sun was supporting the Conservative party because News International had agreed a "contract" with David Cameron. The Tories responded by saying that, if there was a contract, Mandelson should explain what contract existed when the Sun supported Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005.Well, now we know what that contract was. Price explains in his book:Blair and [Alastair] Campbell took to heart the advice of the Australian prime minister, Paul Keating, on how to deal with Murdoch: "He's a big bad bastard, and the only way you can deal with him is to make sure he thinks you can be a big bad bastard too. You can do deals with him, without ever saying a deal is done. But the only thing he cares about is his business and the only language he respects is strength."
Blair and his team believed they had achieved exactly that. A deal had been done, although with nothing in writing. If Murdoch were left to pursue his business interests in peace he would give Labour a fair wind.In the footnotes Price, who worked at No 10 as Campbell's deputy, attributes that final sentence to "private information".Of course, this makes Mandelson's claim (which the Tories deny) about a "deal" of some kind between Cameron and Murdoch all the more plausible. But we'll probably have to wait until we get the first Price-type book from a Tory insider until we learn any more detail.
Where Powers Lies: Prime Ministers v the Media covers all the premiers from David Lloyd George to Gordon Brown and it shows that, in some respects, nothing much has changed since 1916. If you don't believe me, try the prime ministers v the media quiz, which shows that journalist and politicians have been saying the same things about each other for almost 100 years.
|Steve Bell cartoon from back in 1998. See this Indie article from the time: "Murdoch's courtship of Blair finally pays off"|
Winston Churchill threatened to close down the Daily Mirror. An utterly paranoid Harold Wilson punched a reporter in the stomach. Stanley Baldwin denounced the press barons as harlots. John Major drove himself demented by reading the first editions of the papers before he went to bed and once called the editor of the Sun to Number 10 in order to whinge about a story alleging that he was using hair dye. Tony Blair was eulogised by most of the media when he arrived in Downing Street and departed denouncing it as "a feral beast". Gordon Brown is a journalist who now seems to hate most members of his former profession.Blair responded to Price's claims at Leveson, arguing that 6 major decisions went against Murdoch's interests:
The relationship between prime ministers and the media is a complex and combustible mix in which mutual fascination exists alongside reciprocated fear and loathing. It was ever thus. Bill Deedes, information minister under Harold Macmillan and later editor of the Daily Telegraph, observed: "There is a great invisible struggle going on as to who really has the most power – the government or the newspapers."
They included BSkyB's aborted attempt to buy Manchester United, the establishment of media regulator Ofcom, successive increases in the cost of the licence fee and expansion of the BBC's channels and online offering.
If we move on now to Polly Toynbee (famous left-wing Guardian columnist), she wrote an article which explicitly tackles the impact of the lack of political/ideological diverisity in our mainly right-wing press; are Labour leaders/PMs under greater pressure to strike deals with media magnates? There's a lot of very useful detail in the following excerpt from the full article (28.5.12):
The warped press is the single greatest obstacle to Labour gaining power. Once having gingerly stepped inside, the party never feels secure and fears its own shadow. Spin was in fact self-defence, using what Blair called Labour's first professional media operation. Never forget what Labour is up against: 80% of newspaper readership for a hundred years has belonged not just to conservatives, but mainly to extreme maverick press barons, using their power to control politics.The next paragraph takes us back to the early 1940s, still in the era of the press barons such as Beaverbrook + Northcliffe; it then moves on to recent years (Conrad Black owned the Tele, now its the billionaire Barclay brothers [Gdn articles]):
Churchill had to take Beaverbrook into his wartime cabinet to keep him quiet. Northcliffe, asked for his formula, said he gave his Mail readers "a daily hate" – and Blair was dead right to decide nothing could be done about the Mail's poisonous hostility. Conrad Black, after years of hectoring Labour with his off-the-scale neocon views in the Telegraph, is only just out of jail. The Barclay brothers are scarcely more reasonable, tax-avoiding in their feudal fiefdom of Sark, while Red Hot TV owner Richard Desmond's Express is beyond parody.Now Murdoch and his empire are at last in the dock for the vile activities of his gutter press, as scrutiny turns to his cat-and-mouse intimidation and manipulation of politicians.There's the impact of the 1992 election campaign, widely seen as being won by the Tories because of hysterical press opposition to Labour, but also the way in which the more neutral TV news covers press stories, giving their biased agenda further publicity and influence (the Italy example: see my links list; imagine Murdoch owned even more of the press/TV AND was Prime Minister...):
Historians underestimate the might of the media forces against Labour: apart from Berlusconi's Italy, Europe's media is more balanced. Blair rightly says our broadcasters' agendas are dragged along by the frenzy of sound from the press. He talked of how deeply he and his entourage were seared by the treatment of Neil Kinnock in 1992, with that "It's the Sun wot won it" gloat. "I was absolutely determined that we should not be subject to the same onslaught."That last point on OfCom is an important one: the 2003 Communications Act is widely seen as a stitch-up that rather suspiciously enabled Murdoch to buy C5 (he didn't, beaten to it by Desmond) BUT, even though OfCom was explicitly set up to deregulate, it still held much more power than Murdoch wanted - he'd surely love a TV regulator as weak as the PCC? Blair also makes the point we've talked about many times: any party that tried to regulate the press would face intense opposition from the press, and would struggle to win an election.
John Major marked his downfall from the day Murdoch turned against him – the day Murdoch gave Blair the thumbs up. What did it take? Blair was open: whatever it took to placate, charm and persuade him to give Labour a fair hearing. Did that include shaping policies to please Murdoch? No, he absolutely denied it. No, he never gave Murdoch what he wanted commercially either: not ITV, not sport's crown jewels or Manchester United – nor did Labour cut back the BBC. And Murdoch detested the strengthening of Ofcom.
But once in power, why didn't Blair stand up to Murdoch? "Frankly, I decided as a political leader that I was going to manage that and not confront it." Since Margaret Thatcher set aside media ownership laws to let Murdoch acquire 40% of readership plus Sky, why didn't he break up overmighty empires? Impossible, Blair said, for any government: he left his "feral beasts" attack to his last days. Taking on the overmighty press would have meant an "absolute major confrontation" lasting years, while the public wanted action on health, schools and crime. "That's the political judgment you have to make.".....................
Leading off that last point, Blair accused the Mail in particular of pursuing a personal vendetta against him and his family:
Tony Blair has accused Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers of pursuing a "personal vendetta" against his wife, revealing that their lawyers had sent more than 30 letters of complaint about the paper's coverage over a five-year period between 2006 and 2011.You can read how the wider press covered his performance here.
Blair, who once likened the media to a "feral beast", told the Leveson inquiry that newspapers were guilty of an "abuse of power" by vigorously pursuing people it did not like or disagreed with "full on, full frontal, day in, day out".
"I think a certain amount of comment is perfectly legitimate," said Blair. "Some of the papers, in particular the Mail group, took it too far and it turned into a personal vendetta.
"You're always going to feel sensitive about your own family but I thought and do think that the attacks on her and my children were just unnecessary and wrong.
"The fact is when you fall out with the controlling element of the Daily Mail that is when you are going to be subject to a huge and sustained attack."
Blair said he had asked his office to analyse 50 Daily Mail stories about him after the 2005 general election, and 50 stories prior to his departure from Downing Street. He said all 100 were negative.