An elderly media tycoon and the not-so-humble pie

Murdoch's news-loving Spidey-sense still tingles.

So there it was, then. The defining moment of the Hackgate hearings was not a thundering "You can't handle the truth!" from one of the main players but a foamy pie splattering into the face of an elderly media tycoon.

As the faux-custard humiliation oozed down his face, perhaps Rupert Murdoch's news-loving Spidey-sense still tingled: he must have known, despite it all, that this was the only show in town, and his humbling, via a not-so-humble pie, was complete.

It's a messy kind of protest, chucking goo at someone you don't approve of, and quite often rather counterproductive.

Ted Heath got showered with red paint on his first day as Prime Minister in 1970 (remarking "That was a stupid thing to do, wasn't it?"), then splashed with ink outside the Palais d'Egmont in Brussels in 1972.

Peter Mandelson, of course, suffered a green custard sploshing at the hands of an outraged environmentalist in 2009, one of many food-chucking incidents of the New Labour era, which saw John Prescott egged, Nick Brown lunged at with a chocolate éclair and Tony Blair pelted with a tomato. Keep a straight face, please, because it's not funny, but Robert Kilroy-Silk had a bucket of slurry thrown over him.

Maybe there's a special course that politicians can go on where they learn how to maintain their dignity while they have foodstuffs lobbed at them; perhaps it's just a skill that comes with the territory.

There is a certain ability to be able to climb onto the moral high ground with relative certainty when one is enduring a custard onslaught -- though when the icy-cool mask slips, as it did with Prescott's memorable two-punch combo aimed at a protester in Rhyl, it needn't be a disaster either. People didn't mind Prezza going toe-to-toe with a man with an egg-hurling man in double denim; it seemed, in the public's imagination, that under such provocation, all ministerial decorum could be abandoned.

I know, by the way, that I'm talking about the pie, and that by talking about the pie, I detract from "the story", which is about everything other than the pie; by doing so, even with my minuscule readership, I run the risk of, in some small way, encouraging others to take up shaving foam and a cardboard plate when all else fails.

I understand this, but a pie to the face is still a pie to the face; there's no use pretending it didn't happen, when we all saw that it did.

I suppose I should say at this point that it's a demonstration of inarticulacy to pick up an egg, or a custard pie, rather than a keyboard, or a pen: and yes, it does give your target the chance to play the victim and accuse you of being incapable of using words to make your argument.

Mind you, the only way I think Murdoch could have won us over would be if he had secreted a pie of his own into the hearing, and launched it into his attacker's face as a pre-emptive strike. That would have been brilliant, but sadly it was not to be.

The pieing rounds off a truly miserable few days for Daddy Murdoch. His empire might not be collapsing around his ears, but it's not been a golden time either. But he can't let go, and is absorbing a huge amount of limelight since the collapse of the News of the World -- possibly to save his family, possibly because that's just the way he does things. It might even lead one to suspect he's almost rather enjoying the attention.

That grinning promenade with Rebekah Brooks was one thing; the paparazzi photos of his spindly legs in tiny 1980s athletics shorts, dangerously close to an upskirt moment, was another.

Perhaps it's a dirt-eating grin of someone who knows they are on the wrong end of a tanking; perhaps it's a defiance, in the face of all of it, from someone who believes he's more sinned against than sinning; or maybe it's just a smile from someone who knew all along that these days would one day come.

We'll never know, I suspect.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories