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Where the Sun don’t shine

Gordon Brown's muted response to the phone hacking scandal raises urgent questions over Rupert Murdo

Why the silence from Gordon Brown about what could turn out to be the media story of the year? Speculation over whether the News of the World illegally hacked into the telephone lines of various figures, including politicians, raises the question of Rupert Murdoch’s rarely scrutinised role in British public life. Given that the former NoW editor Andy Coulson now works for David Cameron, much has been made – and rightly so – of the alleged closeness of the Conservatives, the Murdoch-owned News International and the police.

But it is Murdoch’s influence on the government that is the biggest cause for concern. At least one cabinet minister says privately that he “despairs” how Brown has chosen to go the way of Tony Blair in courting Murdoch. This pandering is unnecessary because Murdoch’s influence is, in fact, built on a myth – the myth that he determines election results. A ruthless businessman, he calculates who will win, and then backs them.

Following the Sun’s hounding of Neil Kinnock throughout his party leadership, and the misleading claim that it was “the Sun wot won it” for the Tories in 1992, Labour strategists were understandably keen to neutralise the media mogul. But they went too far. The former Downing Street adviser Lance Price called Murdoch “the 24th member of the cabinet” during the Blair premiership. Such was Blair’s deference that, faced with threats from Murdoch aides that the Sun and the Times would withdraw support, he secretly reversed his policy not to hold a referendum on the proposed EU constitutional treaty.

Over the past five years, I have been asking the government, through the Freedom of Information Act, about Murdoch’s contact with both Blair and Brown. Answers were denied on the grounds of national security – until 2007 when, days after Brown became PM, the Cabinet Office revealed that Blair had had

“a telephone conversation with Rupert Murdoch on 13 March 2003”. The timing of the phone call – on the eve of the invasion of Iraq – is worth noting. If it had not been for the support of the Murdoch outlets, the Iraq War could have been even more fateful for Blair.

Brown, on the other hand, has failed to disclose his contacts with Murdoch. No 10 argues that “personal and political” discussions do not have to be shared. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has accused Brown of “hypocrisy”, given the Prime Minister’s earlier promises to respect “the public right to know” and to bring in “new rights to access public information where previously it has been withheld”.

In late 2007, I asked for details of any meetings between Murdoch and Brown. A Downing Street official replied that “we do not hold any minutes of any meetings or other interactions” between the two men. It subsequently emerged that the pair had met at Chequers during the weekend of 6-7 October that year. This, again, was a significant date: the very weekend on which Brown decided not to call “the election that never was”.

Until both parties liberate themselves from his grip, Murdoch will remain the most unnecessary influence on British politics.

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Mirth over the Facebook swimming-trunk photos of the new head of MI6 has distracted attention from more pressing stories from his past. Sir John Sawers (now known in the Foreign Office, where he worked from 2003-2007, as “Speedo Sawers”) was close to Tony Blair at the time of the Iraq invasion. His MI6 appointment last month, sanctioned by Gordon Brown, may have been welcomed by Labour ministers in the wake of the announcement of a fresh inquiry into the war. As the new “C”, Sawers will be an influential conduit between intelligence services and the inquiry, and might be expected to protect his former boss.

But Sawers – and his scepticism over how the invasion was handled by the US-led alliance – should not be underestimated. On 11 May 2003, while he was envoy to Baghdad (see far left in the photo), he wrote a memo to Blair and key officials entitled “Iraq: What’s Going Wrong”. In it, he described the postwar administration led by the retired US general Jay Garner as “an unbelievable mess”. Garner’s team had “no leadership, no strategy, no co-ordination, no structure and [was] inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis”. More generally, he wrote that the “military culture in the capital needs to change” and that reconstruction was happening “far too slowly”.

Now Sawers has the power to decide which raw intelligence on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein reaches the inquiry. That intelligence is of the utmost importance, because a crucial question is the extent to which it was flawed, or was manipulated.

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Tony Blair was the subject of an interesting aside in conversation with Douglas Alexander (Interview, page 30). Labour’s election co-ordinator defended Gordon Brown, even though he admits he was briefed against over “the election that never was”. He contradicted claims that Brown has a “Stalinist” style. “I noticed a difference in discussions around the cabinet table when Gordon became Prime Minister.” He said they were “longer” and more collegiate, an “approach that certainly has not always been the hallmark of this government over the past 12 years”. Alexander is being polite. The former cabinet secretary Lord Butler said cabinet government “virtually disappeared” under Blair, replaced by “sofa” government. Only one decision was taken by the cabinet, on the Millennium Dome. And “the only way they could get that decision was Tony Blair left the room”.

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If a man is judged by his friends, a political party can surely be judged by its supporters. The New Statesman’s senior editor Mehdi Hasan had a troubling encounter on the Tube last week. “Are you Indian?” demanded a leering, apparently well-oiled skinhead. When Hasan confirmed he was of Indian origin, there followed a sinister tirade: “Your time has come. You’ll be out when my boys get into power.” Whom did he mean, Hasan wondered, the BNP? Then came the answer: “The Tories.”

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Friends in high places
Nowhere has the appointment of the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, to the House of Lords as a crossbench life peer been celebrated more enthusiastically than at Lambeth Palace. Rowan Williams, who can also sit in the upper chamber, was the first faith leader to express his pleasure at the news. Describing himself as “absolutely delighted”, Williams said: “The House of Lords will be greatly strengthened by his appointment.”

When I travelled to Auschwitz with the two men last year, it was clear they were close friends. During the flight, while almost all the other passengers slept, they were locked in intimate conversation at the front of the plane. Later, walking around the Holocaust site, Rabbi Sacks compared their relationship to that of their predecessors William Temple and Joseph H Hertz, who co-founded the Council of Christians and Jews in 1942.

“I have the greatest respect for the Chief Rabbi – a public intellectual,” the archbishop told me at the time. “And because he has sometimes found his own community hard work . . . we do occasionally compare notes, dot dot dot.”

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country