Thursday, 7 July 2011

British elections may never be the same again

And so the beast was slain, the News of the World, dead.

The Labour Party is rejoicing, and rightly so, in many ways this is their best week since the election last year. Ed Miliband killed at PMQs this week, their MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson have led on this since the start, and Cameron is reeling. A Survation poll in association with Channel 4 News shows that only 9% think David Cameron is handling the controversy ‘well’, and the Liberal Democrats, despite the party’s general hatred for News Corp have been largely absent from the debate due to being tied into the coalition. Labour have an opportunity to lead, and they have taken it.

This is good for Labour. For the first time in years they are able to paint themselves out as the champions of morality against a corrupt elite, they can launch a moral crusade, what’s more it is one that binds the whole party together and which reaches right across the political spectrum. Almost no one, of any political persuasion, would disagree that the allegations surrounding News of the World activities are horrifying. New Labour made it clear it was comfortable with elites and they proliferated around the party and its leadership, but Ed Miliband has nothing to lose, only the Mirror backed Labour in the last election and the media environment has got barely friendlier since then. He has nothing to lose by attacking them. I do not believe that the Labour Party can win an election on this but it has, temporarily at least, given them a sense of unity and purpose, a mission all of their own, and something to whack the government with.

What’s more this story has the potential to run and run. The News of the World may be deceased but Rebekah Brooks, who has achieved almost pantomime level of villainy in all this, remains at News International, and in any case, these revelations from the News of the World may be just the tip of the iceberg. Other newspapers are noticeably quiet, which suggests that they may have something to hide, and the timing is also bad for the News of the World. It is summer, Parliament will soon be on recess, and there will be almost no news. Here there are parallels to the expenses crisis, as an apparently corrupt elite has its crimes drawn out before the general public. That happened over a summer too, and one of the reasons it lasted so long as there were always new revelations to reveal, the full scale only became apparent in drips and drabs.

If this indeed proves to be the case it will be a deeply uncomfortable summer for David Cameron, who has worked hard to establish close links with News International. To be fair, he is not alone. Every Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher has made it a priority to woo Rupert Murdoch. You can see why; he owns a massive amount of the news media and his tabloids, at least, are not newspapers which mess around when they want something. He has the appearance of power, and his newspapers have always gloried in that appearance. The headline from the day after the 1992 election is the famous cliché: ‘It was the Sun wot won it’.

Such claims of media power are overblown. Academic research does not support the claim that newspapers define political preferences; rather they are more closely affected by things like the views of your friends. Newspapers, it seems, do tend to affect what political issues you think are most important, but not your actual view on them. Now there are those who read papers and believe everything they say, but those are mostly a sort of feedback situation. People who already believe something, may read a choice of newspaper which simply backs up their own views. Nor do readers necessarily appreciate the political slant of the newspapers they read. Chris Patten, former Tory party Chair, reveals in his book Not Quite the Diplomat that research by the Conservative Research Department after the 1992 election showed that most Sun readers thought it was a left-leaning paper.

Rupert Murdoch does not define who wins elections. Rather he uses his deft political nous to predict who will win elections and then back them. In conjunction with this he uses the myth of his own power and standing to strike deals with politicians who either believe the myth is true or don’t want to test the theory that it is false. What does Murdoch want in return?

Murdoch is very right-wing, no one denies this, but he is, first and foremost, a businessman before all else. I would highly recommend Nick Davies revealing book Flat Earth News to anyone interested in these issues. It is an investigation by Davies which has been throwing up these revelations and Flat Earth News covered phone hacking and other ‘dark arts’ years before they entered mainstream consciousness. It is not a perfect book, I think it sells journalists too short, Davies’ left-wing biases are made quite clear and it can get ranty but it is well worth a read, especially now.

One thing Davies covers is the business practices of Murdoch, and a clear pattern emerges. Over and over again Murdoch has made deals with politicians in exchange for changes in laws and rules to benefit his businesses. There is an excerpt from the book here.

We can see this behaviour now. Murdoch was reticent to back Cameron for a long time, despite lobbying from Cameron’s friend Brooks. He eventually relented in late 2009, and News International began to back the Conservatives strongly. When the debates happened and the Clegg bounce occurred his papers visibly panicked. On the one hand there was a risk of a government including Lib Dem figures who owed him no favours, but perhaps even more dangerously the myth would have been blown. In short, Murdoch’s power would have gone and he would not have been able to secure the political favours he wants to expand his business, first and foremost is to take total control of BSkyB.

Fortunately for Murdoch the Conservatives came close enough to a majority that they could have said to have won.

Yet what politician will cosy up to Murdoch now? The dangers of the historic closeness between media and political elites have now been exposed in a visceral and extremely visible way. Ultimately this could be a true shift in the way elections are fought in this country. No politician will want to get as close to someone like Rebekah Brooks every again for fear of getting burned as a result.

1 comment:

  1. No politician will want to get as close to someone like Rebekah Brooks every again for fear of getting burned as a result.

    Thank god,maybe just maybe that this is the week that the scales fell from the eyes of the British public,if there is a heaven I hope that Dennis Potter is looking down and laughing at Rupert as his empire unravels.