For most Labour people, their starting point with Rupert Murdoch is the front page of The Sun with Neil Kinnock’s head in a lightbulb in the 1992 election. The lightbulb wasn’t the beginning. It was the culmination of years of hostility that Kinnock had had to face from most of the press, but the Murdoch press in general.
Getting a hearing at all for Labour was a battle in those days. The party faced an endless wave of hostile headlines in contrast to support for Mrs Thatcher. Her stance as the outsider – against both corporatism and the old establishment – appealed strongly to Rupert Murdoch, and his papers gave her government overwhelming support.
It is from those years of the 1980s and early 1990s that the visceral hostility to the Murdoch press in parts of the Labour party stems. It is from these years that the recent cry of ‘we should never have supped with that devil’ comes. And yet, wait. Think for a minute. The press does not win or lose elections. That is down to parties and policies. A hostile press hurt, sometimes deeply, but it would be a delusion to put Labour’s defeats in the 1980s down to the Murdoch press. The reasons were far deeper. But the hostile press made a tough situation more difficult. And having a more supportive press, while it cannot solve a party’s tough policy questions, is certainly preferable to unremitting hostility.
Any Labour leader, given a chance to change the dynamic of that unremitting press hostility, would have been right to seize the chance. I remember when Tony Blair was invited to go to Hayman Island to speak to Murdoch’s annual gathering of editors and senior executives. Blair was conscious of the risk and knew that parts of the Labour party wouldn’t like it. But he was also aware this was an opportunity to make a big change in how the UK press saw politics. And so began the process that saw the Sun and other Murdoch papers back Labour in 1997.
Throughout Labour’s years in government, whatever tensions there may have been between Blair and Brown, the desire to have Murdoch’s backing was shared by both men. For Blair, the papers supported (ironically) his toughness on crime and his foreign policy. For Brown, the point of agreement was more often over Europe, and most European finance ministers’ meetings were preceded by a briefing on how he wouldn’t take any nonsense from Brussels. Visits to Downing Street by Irwin Stelzer, one of Rupert Murdoch’s key allies, would often see him call on both men.
But this desire for Murdoch’s backing didn’t mean the Labour government did whatever Murdoch wanted. Labour blocked his attempt to buy Manchester United and the Competition Commission ordered News Corp to reduce their stake in ITV. There was certainly a courtship that both of Labour’s leading figures in recent years took part in but the attempt to portray this as a slavish subservience is way overblown.
Desire for press backing didn’t begin and end with the Murdoch press. In the early days, Blair also wanted to appeal to other traditionally Tory papers but that quickly proved fruitless with the Mail and Mail on Sunday in particular having a visceral loathing of him that still burns brightly to this day. Gordon Brown had more success with his courtship of the Mail while he was chancellor but it didn’t last as prime minister.
Apart from the power of the papers in the News International stable, one of the reasons politicians courted them is they were capable of changing allegiance. The Mirror, to its credit, has stayed loyal to Labour for decades. The Telegraph and Mail have stayed just as consistently Tory. But News International changes sides, having supported the Tories in the 1980s and early 1990s they supported Labour from 1997 through most of our period in government. And if they had done it once, they were capable of doing so again, as events proved.
That is the same reason Cameron was just as assiduous a suitor as Blair and Brown before him. The same attendance at social events, the same careful building of ‘friendships’.
But for all the effort put in by politicians, if News International wants to turn on someone, they will, and indeed did. And they chose the moment when they could do maximum damage to Gordon Brown by dumping their support for him at Labour party conference in 2009. That and the coverage of his family from these papers still angers Brown deeply as was obvious in the Commons speech this week.
So looking back, what is a fair reckoning?
New Labour did worry too much about press headlines particularly in its early days. When you are in opposition, it can seem that your press coverage is all you have. But while governments cannot ignore the press, they have other considerations. The popular, or populist decision isn’t always the right one. All prime ministers learn that. Blair got used to bad coverage and at times had little or no press support at all for what he was doing, the leftwing press acting as critics and the rightwing press as sworn enemies.
But while that criticism may be valid, it was still reasonable for Labour to try to change a situation where it was faced with a uniformly hostile press. To suggest that it would have been better for Labour to ignore the chance to change the allegiance of the Murdoch press and continue to take the battering we did in the 1980s and 1990s is to forget how hard it was to get anything across in those times.
Secondly, the news that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked changed everything. Politicians are one thing, though not fair game to have their phones hacked. But it is incredible that a culture where it was acceptable to hack into the mobile phone of a murdered schoolgirl could have taken hold and it has caused public and politicians alike to reassess how they thought of the press.
Thirdly, something has undoubtedly changed in the past two weeks in the relationship between politics and the media but as yet it is unclear where all this will end up. Politicians will still want favourable coverage from newspapers, though there is likely to be less attendance at each other’s weddings and birthday parties. And perhaps more importantly, some of the fear that has characterised politicians’ dealings with the media may have gone.
There are many great journalists out there and it is sometimes their job to make life uncomfortable for politicians. They should be free to continue doing so. The consequence of recent events should not be a hobbled press but a changed relationship where politicians fear less the kind of character assassination that newspapers can deliver and where people don’t exercise self censorship about they think and believe on big issues.
This article is also available on the Progress Online website. Posted on 15 July 2011.