News UK, journalism and Politics…plus ça change

The reciprocal closeness in the relationship between journalism and power is a prominent feature of British political history. In times of war or national crisis media organisations are expected more often than not to behave as if they were an arm of government  and in recent peace times the willingness of various governments to yield to the demands of Rupert Murdoch’s news empire have been exhaustively documented. We know by the media mogul’s own admission that he often entered Downing Street ‘by the back door‘ and as journalist  Anthony Hilton noted in February of this year:

I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. “That’s easy,” he replied. “When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.”

It is increasingly clear that the influence of News UK (the rebranded News International whose titles include the Sun, the Sun on Sunday, The Times and the Sunday Times) has not diminished in the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry or the phone hacking scandals. Far from it, when Theresa May visited New York in late September (mere months after becoming PM) she found time in her hectic 36 hour schedule to meet with Rupert Murdoch. Perhaps, as the Guardian hinted, the previously media reticent May was just performing a realpolitik quid pro quo because in the Conservative Leadership battle the Sun was unequivocal. Its leader of July 6th stated:

The final choice for who will be our next Prime Minster must be between Theresa May and Michael Gove

Ah Michael Gove, what happened to him after his personal leadership debacle? Well, he’s (back) working for the Times in a classic example of Murdoch’s own realpolitik. Let’s not forget that at the Leveson Inquiry he described his boss as “one of the most significant figures of the last 50 years” a “force of nature, a phenomenon and a great man”.

The fact that Gove has returned so quickly to position at the Times has irked the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop. Earlier this month Hislop told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that Gove’s reappointment should be investigated because of his past closeness to Murdoch whilst in government. There was the possibility, posited Hislop, that the relationship may have influenced political decisions.

That’s as maybe and Hislop is no doubt is aware of Daniel Finkelstein. In 2013, Peter Oborne wrote about the collapse of the boundaries between politics and media and cited Finkelstein as an example. Here is a Times political journalist who in 2011 became chairman of the Conservative Think Tank, Policy Exchange and who enjoyed such a fruitful relationship with Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne that he spoke on the phone to the latter, ‘six or seven times a day. Probably more’. In his fascinating essay, Oborne stated:

“As any newspaperman will recognise, Daniel Finkelstein has never in truth been a journalist at all. At the Times he was an ebullient and cheerful manifestation of what all of us can now recognise as a disastrous collaboration between Britain’s most powerful media empire and a morally bankrupt political class.”

All this came to mind when I read in September that during Cameron’s entire period of office he recorded a monthly audio diary consisting of 53 hours of conversations with ‘his friend Lord Finkelstein’. As revealed in the Times, the pair would meet in secret and cover foreign and domestic encounters.  As the Spectator pointed out, what we had here was a political columnist, former chief leader writer of a national newspaper, unbeknown to readers, acting as David Cameron’s chief stenographer for six years. Oborne records that at the start of the Leveson Inquiry, Cameron submitted lists of all the media figures he had met since becoming PM and Finkelstein’s name was not on it.

In terms of political journalism, it is very easy to be cynical and view politicians and journalists as being part of one exclusive Westminster club which makes decisions based solely upon the needs of its membership. It’s a point I’ve made before, but it may be the case that the hierarchy of the media – the cultural managers that Chomsky and Herman refer to – the editors, the leading columnists and so on share a class interest with the state. So there exists within the news media an institutional bias that guarantees the mobilisation of certain campaigns on the behalf of the elite few.

Which bring us to IMPRESS –the independent monitor for the press. The Press Recognition Panel (PRP) met this week and decided to recognise IMPRESS as ‘the first truly independent press regulator in the UK’ . And, as Stephen Barnett writes here, the editorials of the Daily Mail were alive with rage at the prospect of the ‘end of press freedom’ which is ‘not supported by single newspaper’. On Monday the Sun called on Theresa May, “not go down in history as the Prime Minister who killed free press”.

That IMPRESS has been approved by the PRP in theory now means any newspaper not signed up to its rulings will be subject to exemplary damages in libel cases. Being outside will be costly – meaning that a new law would require rebellious newspapers to pay costs for both sides following a complaint, regardless of winning or losing.

This is a nightmare scenario for the press but early rumours suggest that it won’t actually happen. On the eve of the PRP decision the Times  reported a “Westminster sources” revealing that :

the “punitive elements” of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which would force a newspaper to pay libel damages irrespective of whether or not it won, “will not go ahead”.

In all the column inches around PRP verdict, one thing struck me as significant. In The Sun, the culture secretary, Karen Bradley, was quoted as saying the government was preparing for a “major U-turn in its war against press freedom”. Her special adviser? Craig Woodhouse – former chief political correspondent of the Sun