FEATURED ARTICLE by PETER OBORNE
In the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years, Rupert Murdoch’s empire exploited an alternative and corrupt system of government.
When I went to work in the House of Commons as a lobby correspondent nearly 20 years ago, I assumed that the British constitution worked along the lines we had been taught in textbooks at school and university. Which is to say: Britain was a representative democracy; the police were reasonably honest; and the country was governed under the rule of law. I naively expected MPs to be honest and driven by a sense of duty, and ministers to be public-spirited.
During my first few years at Westminster, I came to appreciate that most of my assumptions were hardly true. In particular, it became clear that power had seeped away from the Commons, which had lost many of its traditional functions. It rarely held ministers to account, and ministers no longer made their announcements to the House, as Erskine May, the rulebook of Parliament, insisted they should; instead they were leaked out through journalists.
For a number of years I was a part of this alternative system of government. We would be fed information confidentially and behind the scenes, and treated as if we were more important than elected MPs. All this was very flattering – and professionally very useful – but I couldn’t help sensing that something was wrong. It wasn’t just that the media had taken over the function of Parliament, it also meant that the traditional checks and balances no longer operated. Above all, information could be put into the public domain privately and therefore unaccountably.
All newspapers were guilty of being part of this new system, but it was exploited in particular by the Murdoch press. I believe that when Rupert Murdoch arrived on the British scene in the 1960s, he was, on balance, a force for good. The deference that still defined a great deal of political culture was challenged by Mr Murdoch, and better still he took on and defeated the print unions, which had all but destroyed the British newspaper industry in the 1970s. But by the 1990s, Murdoch’s newspapers were starting to abuse their power. The best way of demonstrating this is perhaps by examining the career of Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International who is in such trouble this week. Her professional career is, in a number of ways, a parable for the times we have lived through.
One of the greatest adventuresses of her era, she emerged on the scene when New Labour under Tony Blair was on the verge of power. During this time she was married to Ross Kemp, the EastEnders actor who was one of the most powerful defenders of New Labour. They lived in south London, emphasising the faux-proletarian credentials that were such an important, if misleading, part of the New Labour message.
As New Labour’s star waned, Rebekah Brooks changed course. She ceased to be the cool, metropolitan figure favoured by New Labour. She moved to Oxfordshire, took up riding and became the central figure in the now notorious Chipping Norton set. Meanwhile, her titles changed their allegiance. The political editor of the Sun might have been deemed to lack the impeccable social credentials demanded by an incoming Tory government. He was replaced by an Old Marlburian.
The identical transfiguration took place at The Times, where Phil Webster, one of the few remaining journalists in Fleet Street who has come up the hard way, was removed. Webster, who had been a favourite of the Blair government, found himself replaced as political editor by Roly Watson, who had been a member of Pop, the exclusive club at Eton, at the same time as David Cameron. A pattern was clear. Rebekah Brooks (like all the News International insiders) attached herself like glue to whichever political party held the ascendancy.
During the Blair years, News International executives, Mrs Brooks among them, would attend the annual Labour Party conference, but they were scarcely treated as journalists. When Tony Blair gave his leadership speech, they would be awarded seats just behind the cabinet, as if they had been co-opted into the Government. Arguably they had. The first telephone call that Blair made after he had escaped from the conference hall was routinely to Rupert Murdoch himself. And when ministers who had been favoured by the Murdoch press left office, they would be rewarded. David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell were both given columns on News International publications.
A version of this process repeated itself when Gordon Brown became prime minister, with Rebekah Brooks attending Sarah Brown’s cringe-making “pyjama party” at Chequers. It may not suit Mr Brown, who made such a passionate speech in the Commons yesterday, to remember it but he, too, was part of the Murdoch system of government. And so was David Cameron, who last October threw a party for his closest friends to celebrate his 44th birthday. Reportedly everyone present had known the Prime Minister all his adult life – with the exception of Mrs Brooks.
There was a very sinister element to these relationships. At exactly the same time that Mrs Brooks was getting on so famously with the most powerful men and women in Britain, the employees of her newspapers (as we now know) were listening in to their voicemails and illicitly gaining access to deeply personal information.
One News of the World journalist once told me how this information would be gathered into dossiers; sometimes these dossiers were published, sometimes not. The knowledge that News International held such destructive power must have been at the back of everyone’s minds at the apparently cheerful social events where the company’s executives mingled with their client politicians.
Let’s take the case of Tessa Jowell. When she was Culture Secretary five years ago, News International hacked into her phone and spied on her in other ways. What was going on amounted to industrial espionage, since Ms Jowell was then charged with the regulation and supervision of News International, and the media group can scarcely have avoided discovering commercially sensitive information, even though its primary purpose was to discover details about Ms Jowell’s private life.
Yet consider this: Ms Jowell was informed of this intrusion at the time and said nothing. More curious still, she retained her friendship with Rebekah Brooks and other News International figures. Indeed, Ms Jowell appears to have been present at the Cotswolds party thrown by Matthew Freud, son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch, only 10 days ago.
James Murdoch, heir apparent to the Murdoch empire, was also present. These parties were, in effect, a conspiracy between the British media and the political class against the country as a whole. They were the men and women who governed Britain and decided who was up and who was out. Government policy was influenced and sometimes created. I doubt very much whether Britain would have invaded Iraq but for the foolhardy support of the Murdoch press.
The effect on government policy was wretched. Decisions were determined by consideration of the following day’s headlines rather than sound analysis. Furthermore, private favours were dispensed; Blair when prime minister spoke to his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi about one of Murdoch’s business deals in Italy. Of course it was all kept secret, though details did sometimes leak out. All recent prime ministers have insisted that their meetings with Murdoch were confidential and did not need to be disclosed, as if they were somehow private affairs. Mercifully, Cameron – who has partially emerged from the sewer thanks to his Commons statement – has put an end to this concealment.
It has taken the horror of the revelations concerning the targeting by the Murdoch empire of the family of Milly Dowler, terrorist victims and even relatives of British war dead to bring this corrupt, complicit, and conspiratorial system of government to light.
The process of exposure has taken far too long, but there is at last hope. Two years ago, Rebekah Brooks contemptuously turned down an invitation to give evidence to MPs about how she operated. Next week, Rupert Murdoch, his son James and the reluctant Brooks will all be dragged before them.
The system of collaboration between an over-mighty press and timorous politicians is being exposed. There is hope that we can return to a more decent system of government; that Parliament can reassert its rights, and that ministers will make their decisions for the right reasons and not simply to ingratiate themselves with Murdoch and his newspaper editors. Perhaps the sickness that has demeaned and distorted British politics for the last two decades is at last being challenged and confronted.