Leveson cannot avenge Labour's old ideological defeats

It is Murdoch's influence, not his political standpoint, that is on trial.

The Leveson inquiry is not a judicial investigation into Rupert Murdoch’s political opinions. It is supposed to be looking at media ethics.

The two subjects overlap in one sense: Murdoch’s views substantially influenced – dictated in some cases – the editorial lines taken by the newspapers he owned. If politicians changed their policies just to court the support of those papers, bowing to the whim of their proprietor, democracy was worse off.

But even in that analysis it is the nature of the influence, not the beliefs themselves that would be intrinsically pernicious. Or, put another way, Rupert and James Murdoch are allowed to hate the BBC and Ofcom and think that the licence fee is a neo-Stalinist tool for state control of the media. They might be wrong, but the view itself only becomes problematic in a way that is relevant to Leveson if government policy was bent to accommodate the prejudice in exchange for News International support. If there is a transaction of some kind, it is corrupt. There is grey area of course. Transactions in politics are often implicit. Nothing need be said. It is understood, but never written down, that certain choices will yield certain outcomes. Getting to the bottom of that will be one of Lord Justice Leveson’s biggest challenges.

The Conservative leadership is avidly pushing the narrowest possible definition of that perceived transaction. One of the most important moments in George Osborne’s evidence to Leveson yesterday came when he denounced the theory that there was some “vast conspiracy” to hand full control of BSkyB to the Murdochs. This view, in the Chancellor’s words, “just doesn’t stack up”. It was an important précis of the government’s main line of rebuttal around the whole Leveson/phone-hacking debate.

Essentially, Number 10 wants to control the political argument over what constitutes an “improper” relationship with the Murdochs. That is: the allegation that there was a specific, explicit pact in which News International newspaper endorsements were procured with willingness to permit the BSkyB takeover. As long as no documentary evidence surfaces to substantiate this notion, the Prime Minister and Chancellor think they are broadly safe.

They are also confident no such evidence exists. As Osborne said in his evidence yesterday, why on Earth would the Tories have given responsibility for the bid to Vince Cable in the first place if they were engaged in some secret plan to stitch things up for News International? How could they have predicted that Cable would end up forfeiting his right to oversee the bid, thereby creating the opportunity to pass responsibility to Jeremy Hunt?

In other words, the Downing Street approach is to frame the allegations against them in terms that look like a crackpot conspiracy theory – the media/political equivalent of denying the moon landings. What they don’t fully appreciate, or at least what they can’t prevent, is the more general whiff of unsavoury cosiness with a corporate clan who clearly had privileged access to the corridors of power. On that front, the Downing Street rebuttal is that everyone was at it. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown played that game too and, say the Tories, sometimes played it even more vigorously.

Labour's riposte, reasonably enough, is that the current government has taken social intimacy with the Murdochs to a new level and that the quasi-judicial process around the BSkyB bid was specifically compromised, which is of a different order of offence.

But clearly some on the Labour side see the Leveson process as a way to get back at the Murdochs for what is seen as a wicked influence on political debate more generally in Britain. There is, on the left, an appetite for payback for what is seen as the long nurturaing of reactionary populism around issues such as welfare and immigration; and for the Sun’s treatment of Neil Kinnock.

Now it may be true that tabloids have coarsened political debate in Britain. It may also be true that there is a Tory bias in much of the print media and, indeed, that the Murdoch family has played a part in steering political discourse in Britain to the right. Leveson might decide that the process by which that happened was in some way dysfunctional but he cannot – or at least should not – be in the business of saying that one ideology was morally deserving of more or less influence than it got. He cannot, in other words, say what many on the Labour side feel, which is that the whole history of British politics since the 1980s was twisted against them and that Murdoch is in some way to blame. Leveson is not going to build Labour a time machine so they can go back and see what would have happened if Neil Kinnock had won the 1992 election.

So yes, the inquiry damages the government. It damages Cameron and Osborne. It raises all sorts of questions about the judgement of the Conservative leader - the choices he made with regard to the recruitment and defence of Andy Coulson; the complacency over phone-hacking; the horse rides and Christmas picnics with Rebekah Brooks; the speedy unilateral exoneration of Jeremy Hunt, when plainly the Culture Secretary’s office was derelict in its duties to impartiality. No, on those points it doesn’t look good at all.

But it is important to disentangle different strands of outrage. There is the criminal behaviour and corruption that infected the journalistic culture at the News of the World and possibly other tabloid titles. There is the way that criminality penetrated the police force. There is the blurring of the boundary between a corporate interest and the decision-making process of government. Nowhere in that mix is it especially relevant that the Sun or other Murdoch titles gave Labour a hard time when they were in opposition in the 80s and early 90s. Nowhere in the inquiry's final report will there be a section devoted to lifting the shroud of false consciousness that the Murdoch press is somehow supposed to have imposed on the British people to make them less receptive to social democracy. If Labour wants to win the country round on that front, Leveson isn't going to help.

Labour can score many political points against the government around Leveson, but they should all be about judgement and due process. Ideology is best be kept well out of it.

"Leveson is not going to build Labour a time machine so they can go back and see what would have happened if Neil Kinnock had won the 1992 election." Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.