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

Photo: Getty Images
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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research