For Murdoch and friends, sorry is the easiest word

For Rupert, Rebekah and David, contrition has finally arrived. But where's the shame?

Rupert Murdoch is very sorry. He's very sorry that he didn't know anything about what went on at his newspapers, which was wrong but not the fault of the people in charge of those newspapers, and he's very sorry that those people who were in charge, but didn't know anything about the wrong things that were happening, have now had to resign.

Rebekah Brooks is sorry. She's sorry that although she was in charge of newspapers for which despicable acts took place, she knew nothing about it, having been on holiday when many of these incidents took place, and not having known about it otherwise. She's sorry that she said that her organisation had paid police, when what she meant to say was that her organisation had not paid police. These things happen, when you're in a high pressure situation. You can end up saying things you didn't mean to say.

David Cameron is sorry. He's sorry that he gave someone a second chance. He's sorry that the second chance, which he gave someone, by giving them a second chance, didn't work out as well as he might have hoped. No-one warned him that by giving this someone a second chance, it might not be the best outcome in the history of the world, although some people say they did warn him, and that he must have either not even read those warnings, or not listened to them, or proceeded anyway.

Everyone's sorry. Everyone is sorry that what happened happened, and that even though they were in the kind of positions where you might expect them to know about what happened, they didn't know about what happened. No-one knew anything, and were quite right to dismiss all the investigative work on the phone hacking story as boring lefty troublemakers doing some yawnworthy tedium, until the tale about the hacking of a dead teenager's phone came out - at which point it actually mattered.

It mattered because the story went beyond the BBC, or the Guardian, or the usual suspects - it went everywhere, and wasn't going to go away. It wasn't just being read about by the kind of people who'd never buy your papers; it was being read about by exactly the kind of people who do buy your papers, and are disgusted with you for having run the kind of paper where this kind of thing happened. Then it mattered a lot.

Then, everyone who is now sorry was as shocked as everyone else. Imagine the shock. The surprise. Imagine not having known about anything, all that time. Imagine employing someone - giving them a second chance, if you want to use that phrase - who was rumoured to be involved in some dodgy dealing, and not having sat them down and forced them to tell you exactly what they knew and didn't know. Imagine that.

Would you feel sorry, or would there be another feeling running through you? Not sorry, but something else... shame. Shame that you should have known, but didn't know. Shame that you didn't ask the right questions of the right people. Shame that you didn't know where any of this information came from, and just paid people for it anyway. Shame that you were in charge, yet weren't in charge. Shame that you took the absolutely enormous salary, yet didn't know what you were doing, apparently.

Everyone's sorry, and everyone involved in this grubby mess hopes that a simple sorry will make everything all right again. Just a simple sorry, and hope that the fuss dies down, and then up pops the Sun on Sunday on August 7, or thereabouts, and it's the football season and there'll be a massive preview and free gifts and other lovely things for you to look at, and everyone will just shrug their shoulders and think, oh well, I suppose we'd better give them a second chance, hadn't we? It's important to give people second chances. And that will be that. Crisis averted. Ed Miliband foiled. Everything carries on, much as it did before.

Unless people aren't prepared to tolerate being fooled again. And unless people aren't prepared to think that a simple sorry will get Murdoch and friends out of this sorry mess.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.