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28 November 2019

Miliband has Murdoch’s empire in his sights

Labour leader calls for News International to be broken up at the Leveson inquiry.

By George Eaton

Unlike most of his peers, Ed Miliband came to the Leveson inquiry with little political baggage, allowing him to focus on the future of the media (he described it as a “privilege” to give evidence). The most notable moment came when Miliband elaborated on his earlier call for News International to be broken-up. He argued that the group’s sense of “power without responsibility” flowed from its “overweening” dominance of the market, and called for Leveson to recommend a cap of between 20-30 per cent on newspaper market share (News International currently controls 34 per cent). “I think it’s good for our democracy to have plurality in the market,” he concluded.

The Labour leader’s opponents will present this as a cynical attempt to reduce the influence of the Conservative-supporting News International, although it’s hard to imagine any of the alternative proprietors being more favourable to Labour. As Miliband told the inquiry, his aim “is not to stifle one particular organisation or another.” He added that he also wanted to review the UK’s cross-media ownership rules, something that could threaten News Corp’s 39.1 per cent BSKyB stake.

Elsewhere, he dealt calmly with questions about his director of communications, Tom Baldwin, whom Lord Ashcroft accused of illegally “blagging” his bank details. He told Robert Jay QC that Baldwin and former Times editor Peter Stothard (Baldwin’s old boss) both denied the allegations. In a notable move, Miliband also sought to distance himself from Gordon Brown, telling the inquiry that he raised concerns about Damian McBride’s behaviour with him in September 2008, and challenging Brown’s absurd claim that he knew of no evidence of Charlie Whelan briefing against his political opponents. He pointedly noted that Whelan left government in 1999 “because he briefed”.

Miliband again conceded that he was “too slow to speak out” about phone-hacking, adding, in his defence, that taking on the press was like taking on “an 800lb gorilla”. Asked whether he spoke to Rupert Murdoch at News International’s 2011 summer party (which predated the Milly Dowler revelations), he said the pair had a “short conversation” about US politics and international affairs. In retrospect, he added, he should have raised the subject of phone-hacking.

On media regulation, Miliband emphasised his support for a free press, rightly noting that phone-hacking was only exposed thanks to “the rigour and dedication of the press”. To the undoubted relief of many hacks, he declared his opposition to statutory regulation “in relation to political balance”. Miliband added, however, that fear of a “chilling effect” was not an excuse for inaction. Like David Cameron, he is inclinced to support a system of “independent regulation”, a compromise between the twin poles of state regulation and self regulation. It looks as if Leveson may get the bipartisan consensus he craves.

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