Notes From the Margins…

The Mice Turn on the Cat

  • July 16, 2011
  • by

Watching the Murdoch empire unravel has certainly become one of the unexpected pleasures of the summer, but I’m not as inspired by the politicians who are now hunting the old bastard down as some commentators think I should be.

In a Guardian column today Jonathan Freedland described last week’s vote in parliament as a ‘British revolution’ comparable to the fall of Ceaucescu.

Over in the New Statesman Mehdi Hassan has written of the ‘chrysalis moment’ that transformed Ed Miliband from soundbite-spouting zombie into a brave and principled leader ‘ speaking for the people, channeling their anger’ against News International.

I don’t buy this.    As satisfying as it was to see last week’s vote, I can’t help feeling that morality and courage have less to do with that cross-party consensus than a recognition that Murdoch was already fatally wounded.   Apart from a tiny handful of MPs, who can be counted on the fingers of one hand, Britain’s political class has not only remained silent about the behaviour of the Murdoch press for years – it has also colluded in it.

This is absolutely clear in the case of Cameron & Co, who have found themselves dragged along kicking and screaming by the course of events and forced to take a position that contradicts virtually everything they have been doing in the last few years, from hiring Coulson to trying to facilitate Murdoch’s BSkyB bid.

But Labour’s record isn’t much better.    Only a few weeks ago, on 20 June Ed Miliband attended the News International summer party, together with Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper – and the Camerons.

Why?  Hadn’t any of them  heard about the phonehacking scandal then?  And what were the moral principles that led  Miliband to hire Tom Baldwin,  Alastair Campbell’s hitman and former Times journalist who once outed David Kelly, as his director of strategy last December?

The opportunism was even more glaring in Gordon Brown’s case.   Last week Brown was railing at News International with such fervid intensity that he even managed to make allegations that were not true, enabling the Sun to occupy an unaccustomed and undeserved position on the moral high ground.

Brown conveniently left out his own relentless attempts to court Murdoch and the tabloids – even to the point of inviting tabloid editors  to his child’s funeral and attending Rebekah Brooks’s wedding.

If he was so offended by the Murdoch press’s intrusions into his private life, why did he invite Murdoch to dinner with George W. Bush on 15 June 2008?   Why did his wife invite Murdoch’s wife and daughter to a ‘slumber party’ at Chequers the following night?   And what exactly was Brown doing, handing out a ‘Global Recognition Award’ to UK Armed Forces in February that year, at a ceremony hosted by…Rebekah Brooks?

Did I mention Tony Blair’s famous flight to Australia in 1995 to meet the Digger’s News Corporation execs?   Oh alright then.  And while we’re at it, we might also mention the allegations in the Daily Mail, that Blair tried to get Gordon Brown to persuade MP Tom Watson to halt  his calls for an investigation into the phonetapping scandal.

Admittedly, this comes from the Mail,  but there is no reason to disbelieve it.  A 1998 memo, obtained in 2008 under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed how Murdoch personally asked Blair to help him overcome an investigation by the European competition commissioner, which was blocking his attempts to open a new tv channel called British Interactive Broadcasting.

According to the Guardian, Blair called a special meeting of his inner ‘kitchen cabinet’ to discuss the issue, and eventually helped Murdoch get his (short-lived) channel.

We often hear that politicians were scared of Murdoch,  which was clearly true -and that Labour, the bullied ideological outsider, was particularly scared  of his newspapers.

But New Labour and Murdoch overlapped perfectly well on many issues, such as the Iraq war.   And as for ethics and morality, there is not a dime’s worth of difference between the likes of Alastair Campbell and Brown’s former crony Damian McBride, and the NOTW.

Labour’s attempts to court Murdoch were a reflection of the same political  opportunism that is now leading Miliband, Harman et al to attack him.   It wasn’t simply that the party lacked the courage to stand up to Murdoch.  Like the Tories, Labour used him for its own political purposes, and Murdoch used whichever party was most likely to facilitate his business interests.

This doesn’t mean that Miliband shouldn’t be encouraged and supported in  his fairweather crusade – anything that damages Murdoch can only be good, wherever it comes from.   But we should certainly be aware of its limitations and wary of the new moral consensus, and remember that in this incestuous and mutually corrupting relationship between the media and politicians there are no permanent allies, friends or principles, only permanent interests.




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  1. Daniel Simpson

    18th Jul 2011 - 8:54 am

    Freedland’s Ceausescu analogy may be more fitting than he realises…:

    The belief that second-tier communists hijacked a popular revolt, or even engineered it, is widespread, particularly since the man who emerged as president, Ion Iliescu, has run the country for all but four years ever since. The haste with which the Ceausescus were put to death by the cabal that took over only fuels popular suspicions further.

    Reuters, 2001

    • Matt

      18th Jul 2011 - 9:11 am

      Good point Daniel – I wonder if Freedland realised this?

  2. Daniel Simpson

    19th Jul 2011 - 9:09 am

    I’d be surprised. Jonathan Cook’s “clubbable and gullible” seemed on the money. Though he seems well-meaning at heart, Freedland is often inclined to incredible credulity, or incredulous stupefaction by the bleeding obvious.


    Subject: Tony Blair
    Date: September 21, 2005 16:00:21 BST
    To: [email protected]

    Hi Jonathan,

    I was puzzled by your latest column, in which you castigated Labour MPs for their supine acceptance of their leader’s crimes in terms that applied almost equally to your own comments on the subject: “There is no outrage, just a shrug of the shoulders.”

    You observe that “there is no realistic way of getting rid of him.” To what extent do you think journalists can contribute to that end? On the strength of today’s mild-mannered musings on page 31, it would seem that the answer is not a lot. In which case, is there any such thing as a Fourth Estate?

    I look forward to your response.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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