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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder