What Brown and Murdoch really said to each other

Brown is right about the timing and subject of the call.

In the paperback of our book - Brown at 10 - Anthony Seldon and I published an extract of the call that took place between between Gordon Brown and Rupert Murdoch, which has been the subject of some discussion today following Rupert Murdoch's evidence to the Levenson inquiry. Brown is right about the timing and subject of the call. They did not speak after the Sun announced its decision to back the Tories during Labour's 2009 conference. They spoke in November after the Sun ran a story critcising the handwritten letter Brown wrote to the mother of a solider killed in Afghanistan. And Brown's anger was directed not at Murdoch but at Rebekah Brooks, who was also on the call.

This is what was said:

When Brown heard about his taped phone call, he was not angry with the mother, but he was very angry with The Sun. Rupert Murdoch personally intervened to try and repair relations between the government and News International and told Brown in a phone call on 22 November that he thought the paper was 'wrong to publish the Janes story'. The tone of the conversation between the two was described as 'warm'. Brown said: 'Rupert you know I respect you and hold you in the highest regard. You know that I have never criticised you personally, and I have never let my people criticise you personally, but your people in London are making a great mistake. You've got to sort them out'. 'I hear you' replied the media mogul 'and I want to apologise.' Those who observed the two men together were often struck by their similarities: 'they were both outsiders, both from a long line of Scottish Presbyterian stock, they valued hard work, they both operated on the basis of knowing more than others, and they both had a phenomenal drive to win' says one. On the call they disagreed only on Brown's claim that The Sun's campaign was 'undermining our mission in Afghanistan'. The atmosphere of the conversation then began to deteriorate when Murdoch pleaded with the Prime Minister three times to speak to Rebekah Brooks, who was also on the line. 'I have no interest in speaking to the woman who is persecuting me' said Brown stubbornly. After more pressure from Murdoch he finally conceded. During a very tense conversation Brown raged: 'How dare you do this to me!' A breathless Brooks tried to deny she had anything 'to do with the headline' and claimed that she had been on holiday when the decision to run the story was taken. 'I know you're lying to me' Brown yelled and slammed the phone down. It would be the last time the two spoke.

Guy Lodge is the author (with Anthony Seldon) of Brown at 10

Gordon Brown's anger April 17, 2010 Photograph: Getty Images

Guy Lodge is associate director at IPPR. He is co-author with Iain McLean and Jim Gallagher of Scotland’s Choices: the referendum and what happens afterwards and with Anthony Seldon of Brown at Ten.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue