Murdoch already has an iron grip on Britain’s political culture. And it is getting tighter
Steve Richards, The Independent
From the beginning, a reasonably positive outcome for Rupert Murdoch was inevitable. Even when Vince Cable was the minister responsible for making the final decision on the bid there was only going to be one winner, albeit a slightly constrained one. Last December Cable told two journalists, posing as constituents, that he had "declared war on Murdoch". The war was more one-sided than Cable probably realised. When his words appeared in public he was removed from the battlefield, but Murdoch would have prevailed in some form or another had Cable managed to stay on the ground.
However distant they claim to be over decisions relating to ownership, British governments make life as convivial as possible for the mighty media owner. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown went out of their way to do so. In the mid- 1990s, Blair flew to Australia partly to reassure Murdoch that he had no plans to change the rules on media ownership.
In an otherwise authoritative performance in the Commons yesterday afternoon, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt did not respond to a question from his shadow, Ivan Lewis, about whether he had discussed Murdoch’s latest bid with David Cameron. The Prime Minister would not have been human, or at least a human politician, if he had not shown more than a passing interest in the matter.
On the whole, Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, receive supportive coverage from the newspapers owned by Murdoch. They would not go out of their way to alienate him even though the conduct of journalists now working for his other newspapers is being questioned.
During Hunt’s statement the Labour MP, Tom Watson, claimed the police investigation into hacking might extend beyond the News of the World to those working at The Sun, Times and Sunday Times. But on this, the Labour leadership is as silent as the Government. Cameron is not alone. Ed Miliband is also not going to go out of his way, either, to make an enemy of this powerful empire.
The tame political dynamic is the reason why an extension of Murdoch’s empire in Britain is unhealthy, in spite of the carefully structured constraints.
Already political leaders kneel at his altar. Now the altar will almost certainly grow in size. The dynamic distorts British politics in a way that is still underestimated, propelling the political culture rightwards. With good cause, Alastair Campbell’s deputy, Lance Price, described Murdoch as the most influential figure on Blair’s government after Gordon Brown. The influence on Labour continues. As Hunt pointed out in the Commons yesterday, Labour huffed and puffed, expressed concerns, but at no point has its leadership come out against the Sky deal.
A leaked memo from Miliband’s media guru, Tom Baldwin, argued that Labour should not go out of its way to antagonise Murdoch. The argument is sound. As Cable would have discovered had he remained in charge, there are battles that mere politicians cannot win.
The outcome under Hunt’s stewardship is subtler than some of Murdoch’s critics had feared, but the extension of the media owner’s sweep will mean the unhealthy dynamic continues. Elected ministers wielded fleeting power as they gave Murdoch the go-ahead when already he owns more than enough. They must now return to paying homage.