Fleet Street unites against Murdoch

Media heads warn Vince Cable that Murdoch's bid for BSkyB could destroy media plurality.

Rupert Murdoch has long seen himself as an "anti-establishment" radical and this morning he will feel vindicated. His bid to take full ownership of BSkyB (he currently owns a 39 per cent stake) has achieved the rare feat of uniting the highly factionalised world of Fleet Street around a single cause: to stop Murdoch.

A remarkable cross-section of media executives have written to Vince Cable urging him to consider blocking News Corp's takeover bid on plurality grounds. Signatories to the letter include Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of Telegraph Media Group, Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, Ian Livingston, chief executive of BT, Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror, Andrew Miller, chief executive of Guardian Media Group and David Abraham, chief executive of Channel 4.

For the Telegraph, which has a long-standing non-aggression pact with News International, to intervene in this fashion, reveals the degree of concern over Murdoch's takeover plan.

When questioned on the subject at a recent New Statesman fringe event, Cable replied:

I am not willing to express a view on it. This is a legal process. The power that I have as a secretary of state is limited to a judgement on whether the media plurality is affected on this - and I will form a judgement if a bid is made, but as yet no bid has been made.

If Cable's aim is to preserve media plurality then there is only one possible conclusion: the deal must be blocked. As Mark Thompson recently argued in his impressive MacTaggart Lecture, Murdoch's takeover bid, if successful, would lead to a "concentration of cross-media ownership" that would be unacceptable in the United States or Australia.

As the owner of the Sun, the News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times, Murdoch already controls 37.3 per cent of UK newspaper circulation and, based on revenue, Sky is now the country's largest broadcaster, with an annual income of £5.4bn. With the Times already behind a paywall and the News of World soon to follow, his game plan is coming into view.

Once the deal is complete, we can expect the News Corp head to bundle his newspapers with Sky subscriptions in an attempt to offset falling circulation. As media analyst Claire Enders has predicted, by the middle of this decade, Murdoch could control 50 per cent of the newspaper and television markets, a concentration of ownership that would make even Silvio Berlusconi blush.

That Murdoch has a history of editorial intervention is not strictly relevant: it would be undesirable for any individual or company, however benevolent, to achieve such a concentration of ownership. But it certainly raises the stakes.

David Cameron, who could count on the full-throated support of Murdoch's newspapers during the election and whose communications director, Andy Coulson, remains close to News International, now faces a major political dilemma. Does he defend plurality and competition, or will he stay loyal to his media patron?

We know that Murdoch visited Downing Street just a week after Cameron became prime minister. Was Cameron leant on to approve the BSkyB deal? We may be about to find out.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide