Hard News by Russell Brown


The Great Unwinding

A system as malign and pervasive as that imposed on British public life by Rupert Murdoch's newspapers was never going to be tidily unwound. But that unwinding -- from the campaigning journalism that exposed the phone-hacking story, to the political recoil, the criminal investigations, Murdoch's blasted tweets and, still, the formal accounting of the Leveson inquiry -- has become both unpredictable and dangerous to anyone caught up in the story.

As Nick Cohen pointed out in The Observer yesterday, the pending appearance of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks before Leveson this week has already raised the fear factor for David Cameron's government -- not only in what the proceedings might reveal but in what News International might choose to reveal on the way in.

The greatest fear is among the Conservatives. Murdoch's decision to release emails that showed how Jeremy Hunt's adviser was facilitating News Corporation's takeover of BskyB was a taste of what may come. Not just Hunt, but Cameron and George Osborne were complicit in promising sweetheart deals to News Corporation. Coulson, Brooks, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch know it. What is more, the Tory leadership suspects they can prove it.

We are in the absurd position where the Conservatives dare not stop fawning over Murdoch now for fear that he will reveal how they fawned over him in the past.

Of course, two Labour leaders -- Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown -- also courted Murdoch. Bryan Gould, who before he was Vice-Chancellor at the University of Waikato was a senior member of Labour's shadow Cabinet under Neil Kinnock and John Smith, wrote about his party's relationship with Murdoch an intriguing Herald column last year.

Gould himself was invited to lunch with Murdoch and his "then right-hand man", Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil. The date turned out to be without apparent purpose. But, he wrote:

We now know Murdoch was intent on using the power that he wielded through his newspapers and other media to cajole, threaten and suborn the leading politicians of the day.

He presumably concluded over our conversation that I was unlikely to be malleable enough to be worth pursuing. Others, however, seem to have reacted differently.

One of those who seems to have arrived quickly at a mutually advantageous modus vivendi with Murdoch was Tony Blair.

He seems to have consulted Murdoch repeatedly about the policy stances he should take in order to win the support of the Sunnewspaper, which was read by large numbers of working-class and potentially Labour voters.

Murdoch had never been shy about claiming the political and electoral influence which he said the Sun gave him.

Indeed, on the morning after the Tory general election victory in 1992, the Sun's famous headline was "It Was the Sun Wot Won It!"

Blair went on to become one of Murdoch's most faithful acolytes.

It was Blair who was the guest speaker at the celebration of News Corp's anniversary in California in 2006 and - standing shoulder to shoulder with Murdoch - who proclaimed that "we are all globalisers now".

Blair's example - his success in apparently riding to three election victories on the back of Murdoch's support - brought most other politicians into line. It became the accepted wisdom that electoral victory depended on Murdoch's endorsement, and this allowed him to demand more and more by way of special treatment from government in pursuit of his business interests.

It was said of Blair's government that Murdoch was the 19th member of the Cabinet - and one of the most powerful - and Murdoch has been assiduously courted since by politicians of all parties.

Media7 has been asking Gould for an interview since that column was published. This week, I'm travelling to Whakatane to do it.

We'll follow that up in the studio with former New Zealand Herald editor Gavin Ellis, who'll talk about the impact of the scandal on newspapers -- including those in Australia, where, as a recent series of reports on NPR's All Things Considered reported:

News Corp. owns the dominant papers in nearly all the country's major cities, as well as The Australian, the only national general interest paper, which has a modest circulation of approximately 130,000 but shapes opinions among elites; it's the paper that gets chewed over by talk radio, television programs and blogs. In addition, News Ltd. owns popular news websites and a controlling minority stake in Fox Tel, the nation's largest cable TV provider, in Fox Sports and the cable Sky News Australia service.

And that dominance does shape the news -- notably on issues such as climate change.

With APN, the publisher of the Herald and The Listener, among others, undertaking a "strategic review" of all its New Zealand assets, having "received approaches in relation to potential transactions involving some or all of" those assets, it's probably a good time to think about these things.

The show will also take a look at some questionable reporting in Afghanistan by the Dateline programme on Australia's SBS channel. The problems with the 'Anatomy of a Massacre' story by Dateline presenter Yalda Hakim were aired in my recent interview with Jon Stephenson and subsequently pursued by the ABC's Media Watch.

UPDATE: SBS Australia has launched a formal Broadcasting Standards complaint about the programme in which Jon appeared. This is ... interesting.

And there'll also be a Dictators' Wives special from Sarah Daniell. I'm looking forward to that.

If you'd like to join us for Wednesday's recording, come along to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ some time between 5.15pm and 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me an email to let me know you're coming.

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