Tom Bower

Dangerous liaisons | 28 April 2012

The ministers humiliated by the Murdochs have no one to blame but themselves

Dangerous liaisons | 28 April 2012
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Ever since Andy Coulson was forced to resign as Downing Street’s media supremo, Westminster’s malcontents have gossiped about the prospect of Rupert Murdoch wreaking revenge for Cameron’s impulsive creation of an inquiry into press ethics. More recently, cynics whispered that the Sunday Times exposure of Peter Cruddas, the Conservative treasurer offering access to the Camerons in exchange for donations, was the gypsy’s warning of horrors to come. And now we have the revelations about the Murdochs’ secret negotiations with the government to take full control of BSkyB. The Murdochs’ appearance this week at the Leveson inquiry fatally threatens the Cameron project and probably destroys Tory hopes of recovering their reputation for competence and honesty. Cameron, it appears, is helpless to influence events and defuse Rupert Murdoch’s anger. While Cameron’s reaction is confused, the tycoon’s attitude is not.

Murdoch is rightly praised for saving Britain’s newspapers from destruction by trade unions and for infusing British journalism with brio and cash, and he is widely credited with radically changing British television and sport. His success was founded in large part on the legitimate exploitation of the vacuum created by his bungling rivals. Now it seems he has had enough. He is said to be fed up not just with Cameron but the whole British establishment, whose lack of imagination and laziness enabled him — after acquiring the News of the World in 1968 — to create his global empire.

Until this week, Murdoch had placated critics by having eaten humble pie at the parliamentary select committee investigating phone hacking. Rightly, he apologised for his employees’ crimes. But now, summoned by a judge who is widely thought to be out of his depth, he and James Murdoch have retaliated against their accusers by providing apparently nuclear evidence that threatens to destroy any lingering illusions about the probity of Britain’s politicians. David Cameron’s problem is that although Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been even more tarnished by their intimacy with Murdoch, he as current Prime Minister is entrapped by his poor judgment. And it’s him in the spotlight. Foolishly, Cameron exposed himself to a succession of encounters with the Murdochs and their senior employees which threatens his reputation for integrity.

Events are spiralling beyond his control. Although Jeremy Hunt took the heat at the beginning of the week, Cameron’s swift defence of his hapless minister puts the focus upon No. 10. However the Murdochs deliver their testimony, their merciless attitude towards devalued politicians leaves Cameron swinging in the wind.

It seems strangely inevitable that, as senior ministers lost their reputation for competence — Liam Fox, George Osborne, Theresa May — the ambitious Hunt should have been next. Keen to please, he enjoyed the speculation that he might be a future Conservative leader. His breezy style appeared to protect him from trouble, and by keeping his head down and avoiding confrontation, he neutralised criticism.

But the minister’s pleasing servility conditioned his reaction when Murdoch’s mob arrived in his office. Instead of being automatically wary, he and his aides appeared to have succumbed. Described as ‘frustrated’ by Vince Cable’s objections towards the Murdochs and having apparently urged Murdoch’s ambassador to ‘find as many legal errors as we can in the Ofcom report’, he is now thought to have crossed the line. In reality, Hunt’s alleged response to the Murdochs’ demands was probably no different from that of his predecessors.

Murdoch’s power baffles and annoys many people in Britain. But the explanation for his exceptional status is simple: his rivals in this country have so far been incapable of competing. Since its foundation, for instance, Sky has benefited from overpaid BBC executives wasting crippling sums on buildings and bureaucrats instead of producing excellent programmes.

Murdoch is now blamed because Labour and Tory politicians supinely flocked to his headquarters begging for support. Yet no one forced Tony Blair to fly to Australia in 1995 to woo Murdoch or compelled Gordon Brown years later to welcome Murdoch’s representatives to his home, his wedding and even his daughter’s funeral. Murdoch simply took advantage of what was on offer.

Irrefutably, the landscape was changed by the exposure of the News of the World’s hacking. In both the execution of the crime and the cover-up, the empire executives were brazenly arrogant. But contrary to the suggestion by the Leveson inquiry’s counsel, Murdoch committed no crime by seeking to influence Jeremy Hunt. Blaming the businessman for exploiting politicians’ follies is akin to blaming whales for eating sardines. The sin, if there was one, was committed by the minister and his advisers, presumably acting on the prime minister’s instructions.

Hunt now pleads innocence, but unfortunately for Cameron, the chronology appears to betray him. On 21 January 2011, Andy Coulson resigned. Just two days later, on a Sunday night, Frederic Michel, Murdoch’s relentless lobbyist, reported to James Murdoch ‘a constructive conversation with JH tonight’. In their bid to overcome any political and regulatory opposition to buy the remaining shares of BSkyB, the Murdochs naturally lobbied the decision-makers. Legally, they were entitled to argue their case and outwit their opponents. As James Murdoch rightly told the inquiry, conversations with ministers, his officials and the regulators are a normal part of negotiating a controversial transaction. Their aggressive lobbying to secure Hunt’s support does not incriminate the Murdochs. But the minister’s response does appear to damn the government.

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Michel now claims that his references to ‘JH’ in his email reports to James Murdoch did not mean Hunt personally but his ministerial aide. Pertinently, in his evidence to the inquiry, James Murdoch appeared to sidestep his employee’s explanation. Murdoch accepted that ‘JH’ was either Hunt or someone who authoritatively repeated his words. Hunt’s misfortune is that Michel’s reports describing the secret commitment of JH to support Murdoch’s bid to disclose exhaustive detail about JH’s opinions. Michel would have to be an exceptional charlatan to have misdescribed Hunt’s personal support for the Murdochs’ bid two days after Coulson’s departure.

If Michel’s message on 23 January 2011 is accurate, Hunt’s candour destroyed all pretence of his independence. Apparently unconcerned by Coulson’s departure, the minister or his spokesman outlined to Michel a strategy to outwit Murdoch’s opponents which, in Hunt’s alleged words, would mean ‘almost game over for the opposition’. In that duplicitous corruption of quasi-judicial neutrality, ‘JH’, reported Michel, would ‘build some cover (for himself) on the process’ and expect News Corp to jointly ‘take the heat with him’. Success was assured, reported Michel, because ‘JH’ had confided that ‘he shared our objectives’. Not surprisingly, Michel concluded that this was ‘really good news’.

Whatever the truth about Michel’s source, Hunt’s assurances to parliament about conducting the whole process of the News Corp bid for the Sky shares in a ‘transparent’ manner is suspect. In the end, however, Hunt’s fate is destined to merit barely a footnote in history. More pertinent will be the reaction to Rupert Murdoch’s legacy.

To some, the unpleasantness of the affair is not politicians 217; varying prejudice towards the Murdochs. It is the self-interest of Murdochs’ media critics, especially the BBC. In reporting the Murdochs’ lobbying of the government, the BBC’s reporters overlook the corporation’s persistent lobbying of the same personalities to boost their own fortunes. Dozens of highly paid BBC executives regularly meet ministers and civil servants to negotiate the renewal of the licence fee, the dispersal of staff from London to the regions and even the content of programmes. Occasionally, they have even lobbied ministers and officials to limit Sky’s success.

The focus will now turn on Cameron himself, and rightly so. Hampered by his naivety and poor judgment, his government appears to be staggering like a bewildered lamb. The hopes for honest and open government have been repeatedly dashed. The question for which we await an answer is to what extent Cameron has become the victim of a vengeful media mogul — and whether his eventual destination is the abattoir.

Tom Bower’s Sweet Revenge: The Intimate Life of Simon Cowell is published by Faber.