Tag Archives: Rupert Murdoch

Murchoch and BSkyB: Hunt isn’t the issue. It’s Cameron

The Culture Secretary is in a tight political spot.  He showed overt political support for Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire, and especially its attempt to consolidate its hold in the highly successful British satellite broadcasting business BSkyB.  Today was supposed to be his moment of truth, in front of the Leveson inquiry.  There is much speculation that he will be forced to resign.  That may be so, but based on today’s evidence I don’t think he’s the main culprit in a shabby episode.

The story so far.  Back in 2010 Murdoch launched his bid on BSkyB, which his empire controlled but did not fully own.  Because of its wider implications this was referred to the government, which was required to act in a quasi-judicial capacity – that it acts with the same impartiality and fairness of process as a court of law.  The minister given responsibility for this was the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable.  But Dr Cable (as he likes to be known) made some rather rash comments about the Murdoch empire to undercover reporters working for the Daily Telegraph (which ironically opposed the bid).  As soon as these became public, Murdoch objected that he did not have the necessary degree of impartiality for a quasi-judicial role.  Within hours the job was given to Mr Hunt instead.

But Mr Hunt, it now turns out, was the subject of intense lobbying by the Murdochs (mostly via their respective minions), and had been lobbying the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in their support.  The awkward issue is that if Dr Cable was unfit for the job because he was biased one way, then Mr Hunt was equally unfit because he was unbiased the other way.  As the closeness of the relationship between Mr Hunt and the Murdoch empire became clear, there were calls on him to resign.  These were strong enough for his special adviser, Adam Smith, to fall on his sword.

The logic of this is that Mr Hunt should have refused the job.  But the nature of his relationship with the Murdochs, and his views of the bid, were certainly known to Mr Cameron.  Surely the bigger problem was the Mr Cameron appointed him to do the job in the first place.  The communications between Mr Hunt and Downing Street (actually with George Osborne rather than the PM directly) seem to show this.

Mr Hunt’s defence is that once he got the job, he created a robust decision-making process that transcended his prior inclinations – and that the decisions he did make showed no bias (before the bid was overwhelmed by the phone hacking scandal that engulfed the Murdoch empire).  The trouble is that exactly the same defence is available to Dr Cable, who was much more scrupulous about showing distance.  Indeed I suspect that Dr Cable would have been driven to approve the bid since the main objections to bid did not form a substantial barrier legally.  To Dr Cable passing this particular baton over was a silver lining to the very dark cloud that this embarrassing affair comprised.

It was Mr Cameron that acted inappropriately.  If he accepts Mr Hunt’s defence, he should not have stripped Dr Cable of the job, and made the same defence of him.  If he was worried about open bias, he should have found somebody other than Mr Hunt to replace him – and that is what he should have done.

That won’t help Mr Hunt.  Just as Adam Smith’s resignation was meant to protect his master, Mr Hunt may need to take the rap for his boss.  The whole Murdoch episode is toxic to Mr Cameron.  He badly needs to make it go away.

 

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Could the hacking scandal threaten David Cameron?

Am I being too sanguine?  I asked this of myself a week ago after posting on the Euro crisis.  Now I’m asking myslf the same thing over my recent posting on the hacking crisis.  Could there be a lot more trouble than I was predicting for David Cameron and the Police?

Consider this article in Lib Dem Voice on Cameron.  This develops the idea that there was a lot of railroading of the rules when the PM hired Andy Coulson as his Downing Street (i.e. Civil Service) press adviser.  The pressure building up on this story could prove intolerable.  Of course the public at large won’t take a great deal of interest in this, but it’s sort of thing that can obsess people in the  Westminster bubble.  And this bubble, to switch metaphors in midstream, is the pond in which Mr Cameron swims; he can’t survive if it becomes poisonous, even if the world outside is fine.

I also bought Private Eye for the first time in years this week.  This is thick with innuendo about actual police bribery, using travellers’ cheques, which goes against my suggestion that this is quite rare in the modern force.  And lots of innuendo about the closeness of the Murdoch empire to both the Police and government.

The problem is that I share a characteristic with Mr Cameron – my first reaction to trouble tends to be to play it down.  This can be be very useful; it tends to calm people down, buy you time for a more considered view, and stop time-wasting.  Too many people have the opposite tendency to panic at everything.  But it can leave you flat-footed on those occasions when trouble is both real and unexpected.  I remember being most senior person in our Moorgate office when the 7/7 bombs went off; for the first few hours I was behind the curve.  To compensate what you need is to have some good advisers close to you who can challenge your assessment.  Ironically this was one of the things that Mr Coulson did for Mr Cameron, and did very well, as far as I can make out.  In fact it’s because he was so effective in the job he was employed for that Mr Cameron has difficulty in understanding that the fuss amounts to much.  But if Mr Coulson used his privileged position to improperly advance the interests of the Murdoch empire, then there’s real trouble.

Still, I may have been right on the Euro crisis.  The can has been kicked down the road again.  There was a lot of relief after last week’s summit of the Euro leaders; no doubt as the detail comes to light people will be less reassured.  In one sense it gets more and more difficult to kick the can each time – but it is equally clear that the Eurozone’s leaders have the political will to do the necessary.  Gradually a new architecture for managing the Euro zone is emerging.  It is one that condemns the UK to the sidelines, but that’s another story for another day.

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Hacking scandal – enjoy it while it lasts

We haven’t seen anything like this since the MPs expenses scandal in 2009.  Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire is the centre of a media and political feeding frenzy provoked initially by outrage over mobile phone hacking, and now taking in dodgy relationships with the Police and management cover-up and dissembling.  Murdoch has had to close one highly successful paper, and now he’s  withdrawn his bid for 100% of BSkyB.  Commentators are using metaphors such as earthquakes and the shifting of tectonic plates.

Frankly I find it impossible not to enjoy this spectacle.  Murdoch and his acolytes are hard-nosed businessmen who would not have thought twice about meting out the sort of stuff they are now victims of.  We can only imaging what The Sun would be saying about the photogenic Rebecca Brooks, the senior manager at the centre of the scandal, where it not part of the Murdoch empire.  What’s more Mr Murdoch clearly had undue political influence, and liked hold politicians in fear – and now it is wonderful to see how politicians behave once that fear is lost.  And his influence was in no way benign, in favour of biased news, extreme Euroscepticism, and stoking up prejudice generally.

But will any lasting good come of it?  It doesn’t bother me that other, equally evil press barons have so far escaped unscathed.  Indeed widening the scope might diminish the punishment – it is surely more effective to totally dismantle one evil empire than damage several a bit.  The others will draw conclusions from Murdoch’s fate.

But the political earthquake of the MPs expenses scandal did not change very much, after its deserved and undeserved victims were buried.  The same prejudices and appetites that Murdoch fed on persist.  Others will move into any empty space that he vacates.  And it is almost impossible to regulate it properly.  It is difficult to believe that the public enquiry will change very much.  Indeed the political consensus around keeping its scope very broad might serve to weaken and dilute its effect.

But in amongst this battle there is one thing worth fighting to protect.  That is the regulation of news broadcasting in TV and radio, and the primacy of the BBC.  As this Bagehot column makes clear (see the end of the article), Murdoch clearly wants to establish a Fox News in the UK to do to TV what his print newspapers have done to that medium.  The BSkyB takeover was part of that strategy.  The baleful influence of this is all too clear from this poll which shows that TV and radio are the only medium that retains a high degree of trust in the UK, and that distrust of the press here is much higher than elsewhere in Europe.

The savages were circling.  They’ve been seen off for now.  But we must stay vigilant.

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