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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Murdoch - dead or alive?

The News International crisis has been a shocking, but welcome gift to Labour leader Ed Miliband.

It's tough being in Opposition. It's tough because there's basically very little to do. The Government - two parties, not just one - get on with exercising real power. When your power is reduced to opposing the Government's agenda, it takes a real cock-up by the Government or a real political scandal to really make yourself heard.

David Cameron, as Opposition leader, really began to make the political weather when Gordon Brown flunked the election that never was. Even Nick Clegg, as Lib Dem leader, had to find niche issues such as the Gurkhas to get noticed.

For Ed Miliband, having a "good" News International crisis was massively important. He has done so. Miliband has never been close to the media. He has the freedom to speak out against Murdoch's News International because he has nothing to lose. He doesn't have their support - Cameron was the one holding the Murdoch parcel when the music stopped. And, quite the opposite, he smelt in this crisis an opportunity to do serious damage to the Murdoch brand which has long been the bugbear of Labour Governments. No Labour politician has forgiven or forgotten the infamous "if Kinnock wins, will the last person turn out the lights?" Sun headline before the 1992 election that Labour blew.

Tony Blair flew halfway round the world to pay homage to Rupert Murdoch, as part of his strategy to win the Sun's support before the 1997. It's always been a fallacy to say that "it was the Sun wot won it". Politicians, the decisions they make and the policies they propes, win or lose elections. Murdoch has long tended to follow a winner where he's seen one - although Neil Kinnock was leading the polls in 1992 and Murdoch still (correctly) backed the Tories.

So Labour have long suffered at the hands of the conservative Murdoch dominated British press. Just as Tony Blair's strategy in 1997 was to court Murdoch, so Ed Miliband in 2011 has sensed a once in a lifetime opportunity to hammer home the News International crisis and do some serious damage to Rupert Murdoch's brand and the influence he has over politicians.

Miliband looks brave and triumphant this week. News Corps withdrew their bid for BSkyB, an important victory for supporters of media plurality in Britain. He has had David Cameron on the run - the Prime Minister has looked evasive and sluggish. He is in serious trouble over his hiring of Andy Coulson, who looks up to his neck and may well be prosecuted for the things he did as News of the World editor. Miliband is beginning to home in on the Metropolitan Police, who look to have been as cowed by News International as Cameron was, and with the same interest in the hacking scandal remaining under wraps.

But a media mogul as powerful as Murdoch may just be impossible to take down. MPs, led by Miliband, will want the inquiries promised by Cameron to limit the power of the Murdoch empire. But, as with MPs expenses and as with the banking crisis, old habits and old powers die hard.

Whilst we're on phone hacking, I'd just like to reflect on why the phone hacking story became a scandal. Back in January, the Government proudly announced restrictions to councils spying on residents. Around the same time, Andy Coulson left the Government. As I said in January on this blog, Parliament should at that stage have taken the phone hacking more seriously as a liberal cause. Everyone has the right not to have their messages hacked into. The hacking of Milly Dowler and other victims of serious crime or grief took this story across the line. Many true liberals, notably the Guardian newspaper, took up the cause. Perhaps more should have taken up the cause, and more loudly.

Let's not wonder over what might have been, but take this opportunity now to shape a free, fair and forensic press.

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