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 Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left