At the heart of the last few days’ evidence at the Leveson Inquiry has been the question of who lobbied who, and who was too easily influenced by whom. The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt stands accused of bending like a reed in the wind to the will of the Murdochs. His special advisor Adam Smith has already resigned amid many bad jokes about his “invisible hand” in the negotiations.
But to suggest it was only Murdoch’s team that was bearing down on the government seeking special favours is wrong. As much as he lobbied for, he was also lobbied against. Back in October 2010, when Rupert Murdoch had signalled his intention to mount a takeover of BSkyB, eight executives of other media organisations put themselves in a cartel of collective interest.
The signatories, representing the Guardian, Mail, Telegraph, the Mirror, the BBC, Channel 4, BT and Northcliffe regional newspapers clubbed together to write a letter to the Business Secretary Vince Cable complaining about the implications for media plurality, something in which they all had commercial as well ethical concerns.
In the event, Cable will have been pleased to have them as cover for his own firmly set opinions. As revealed by an undercover taped report gained by the Telegraph in 2010, the Lib Dem had already decided to refer the bid to Ofcom. “I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win,” he told the young female journalist who was posing as a constituent. Executives at the Telegraph suppressed the quotes and they were only aired when a whistleblower passed them on to Robert Peston at the BBC.
Rupert Murdoch, in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry yesterday, claimed Gordon Brown also promised to “declare war” on him over the Sun switching to support the Conservatives, something the former Prime Minister denies. Even if Murdoch was just being mischievous in using the same wording, it also reminded his audience that Cable and Brown shared anti-Murdoch sympathies. The Sunday Times, shortly after the 2010 election, ran a story saying that during the gloaming years of Brown’s leadership, he would have fireside chats with Vince Cable, fretting about the media’s increasing hostility.
So Murdoch was evidently not the only one trying to exert influence. Telegraph chairman Aidan Barclay openly admitted texting David Cameron with advice on how run his government. The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger has been asked by the Times columnist David Aaronovitch to reveal how much he pushed privately against Murdoch at that crucial time. Rusbridger has promised to report back shortly. Even Gordon Brown and Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, were friendly—the two were said to take early stoic morning walks together in Kensington Gardens.
This stuff is the smoke and mirrors that Lord Justice Leveson is trying to get into at his inquiry. But to interrogate only the Jeremy Hunt question misses half the point. Rupert Murdoch’s empire in Britain may be pushing the boundaries of influence, but it’s not that other media operations aren’t trying too, and in collusion with each other. Cable should have faced as many questions as Hunt has about the anti-lobby, except those media organisations who could have inquired had already written their views in the letter.
In the end Cable may well have been right to refer the BSkyB decision to Ofcom, but his anti-Murdoch motivations were wrong, as were Hunt’s office in trying to smooth over the deal. Murdoch is such a divisive issue in Britain that politicians from both sides of the argument could have never judged it fairly.