Miliband has Murdoch's empire in his sights

Labour leader calls for News International to be broken up at the Leveson inquiry.

Unlike most of his peers, Ed Miliband came to the Leveson inquiry with little political baggage, allowing him to focus on the future of the media (he described it as a "privilege" to give evidence). The most notable moment came when Miliband elaborated on his earlier call for News International to be broken-up. He argued that the group's sense of "power without responsibility" flowed from its "overweening" dominance of the market, and called for Leveson to recommend a cap of between 20-30 per cent on newspaper market share (News International currently controls 34 per cent). "I think it's good for our democracy to have plurality in the market," he concluded.

The Labour leader's opponents will present this as a cynical attempt to reduce the influence of the Conservative-supporting News International, although it's hard to imagine any of the alternative proprietors being more favourable to Labour. As Miliband told the inquiry, his aim "is not to stifle one particular organisation or another." He added that he also wanted to review the UK's cross-media ownership rules, something that could threaten News Corp's 39.1 per cent BSKyB stake.

Elsewhere, he dealt calmly with questions about his director of communications, Tom Baldwin, whom Lord Ashcroft accused of illegally “blagging” his bank details. He told Robert Jay QC that Baldwin and former Times editor Peter Stothard (Baldwin's old boss) both denied the allegations. In a notable move, Miliband also sought to distance himself from Gordon Brown, telling the inquiry that he raised concerns about Damian McBride's behaviour with him in September 2008, and challenging Brown's absurd claim that he knew of no evidence of Charlie Whelan briefing against his political opponents. He pointedly noted that Whelan left government in 1999 "because he briefed".

Miliband again conceded that he was "too slow to speak out" about phone-hacking, adding, in his defence, that taking on the press was like taking on "an 800lb gorilla". Asked whether he spoke to Rupert Murdoch at News International's 2011 summer party (which predated the Milly Dowler revelations), he said the pair had a "short conversation" about US politics and international affairs. In retrospect, he added, he should have raised the subject of phone-hacking.

On media regulation, Miliband emphasised his support for a free press, rightly noting that phone-hacking was only exposed thanks to "the rigour and dedication of the press". To the undoubted relief of many hacks, he declared his opposition to statutory regulation "in relation to political balance". Miliband added, however, that fear of a "chilling effect" was not an excuse for inaction. Like David Cameron, he is inclinced to support a system of "independent regulation", a compromise between the twin poles of state regulation and self regulation. It looks as if Leveson may get the bipartisan consensus he craves.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband arrives to give evidence at the Leveson inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496