The longer version of a letter that appeared in Evening Standard (Saturday 28th April 2012)
When I was writing a book on the influence of the Sun on the 1992 election (‘Was it the Sun Wot Won It?’ Nuffield College), I came to the conclusion that Rupert Murdoch’s decisions about which party to support in an election were little influenced by his own political views and “99% influenced by his commercial interests”. I ran a draft past an editor who had worked for Murdoch and he said I was quite wrong on the 99%: “It’s absolutely 100%.”
So I listened open-mouthed to the Murdochs’ serial denials of this very evident truth in the witness box at the Leveson inquiry: James said: “The question of support for politicians is not something that I would ever link to a commercial transaction”. And his father said: “My commercial interests never came in to where we stood on our attitude to any political party”. What kind of fools do they take us for? Hasn’t there been a “big deal” between Murdoch and every government in the last 30 years? Thatcher did a couple of big favours for Murdoch – letting the Times/Sunday Times merger through without a reference to the Monopolies & Mergers Commission and exempting Sky from media ownership limits by defining it as a ‘European’ channel. Blair kept his party’s proposed stricter media ownership limits out of his manifesto and slipped a last-minute clause into the Communications Act 2002 which loosened them still further. Cameron would have given Murdoch control of BSkyB had not the Millie Dowler affair intervened. These deals may not have been written down, may not even have been explicitly stated, even in private. All that was needed for the deal to work was for the prime minister to know in what circumstances Murdoch would or would not let his hounds off the leash.
The fear that prime minister have of the Sun is not irrational. It’s not just that the Sun has a lot of readers, but its readers have very little interest in politics and very little commitment to any party, with the highest proportion of don’t knows before every election. Sun journalists are the best, if that is the right word, at ruthless character assassination. This combination puts the Sun in a pivotal position to influence the outcome of elections. Kinnock, Major and Brown can all testify to that.
Jeremy Hunt will not last long, but his future is not the central issue here. It’s the future of the Sun to exert such a powerful leverage over British politics. This power has corrupted the relationship between newspapers and politics, leading to arrogance among News International journalists and executives, culminating in the phone-tapping scandal, and to a Dutch auction of moral turpitude by our political leaders who stop at almost nothing to win the support of the Sun. According to the paper’s former editor Kelvin McKenzie, while Blair and Brown went to humiliating lengths to keep Murdoch sweet, Cameron’s “obsessive arse-kissing of Rupert Murdoch” now makes him the daddy of them all. Lord Leveson has the chance to expose this corruption at the heart of British politics. He may not find a smoking gun, but he can spell it out in his report. If Cameron doesn’t take the action that is needed, I’m sure Ed Miliband will.