Hard News by Russell Brown

32

" To prostitute yourself to media interests is not a good way to be"

Last night's Media7 programme is online here -- and there's also a 20-minute extended interview with Bryan Gould. The programme is not entirely unsympathetic to its subject, Rupert Murdoch -- senior lecturer at Auckland University and former Herald editor Gavin Ellis noted the debt that everyone in newspapers owes Murdoch and speculated on what might befall Murdoch's papers if he was removed from command of his company.

But Gould, formerly a senior member of the British Labour Party's shadow cabinet and a colleague of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was scathing of Murdoch's influence on British public life. He talked about the pact that Blair made with Murdoch and his papers:

I've no doubt that Tony Blair saw a deal with Rupert Murdoch -- and initially it was just a deal, it became a friendship later -- but think he saw the deal as an essential step towards winning power. I think the only question really is how early that happened. My own view is the beginnings were there and apparent long before Tony actually became leader of the Labour Party.

In my few last months, perhaps year or two, I noticed what favourable references there were to Tony in the Times, Sunday Times and so on. And of course once he became leader he worked very hard I think to cement that relationship. And when he in due course won the 1997 election, I think this put the seal on the belief -- which then became absolutely rock-solid right across the political class -- that you had to do a deal and be on good terms with Rupert Murdoch and particularly the Sun newspaper if you wanted to win a general election.

I personally never took that view because I thought that the British electorate was very keen to rid of the Tories, almost as soon as they woke on the morning after the 1992 election, with John Major re-elected, and they thought to themselves then, my god what have we done -- we must get rid of this lot at the very first opportunity.

So if Blair and Brown sought the good opinion of the Murdoch media, what in return was Murdoch seeking? What was the quid pro quo?

I think he wanted in essence access to government. And that's still true of Murdoch and his acolytes. The evidence is overwhelming that, even to this very day with the new Conservative government in power, that Murdoch and his major supporters, his chief executives and so in in News International, are texting and communicating with ministers on a daily basis. Meeting with them on a weekly basis at the very least.

So what he wanted I think was access with a view always to deflecting any undue attention to what he was getting up to and to having himself and his interests waved through if there was any step that was required.

Britain has of course long had its press barons and friendly Prime Minister, back as far as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook at least, but Gould held that Murdoch was different from the old Express and Mail owners in the global scale of his business and in that he was "very overtly prepared to use that power … if you cross Murdoch, he will use the power of his media outlets to punish you."

And yet if British Labour has bitten back, the Conservatives seem determined to stay in what now almost seems like an abusive relationship with Murdoch. Why?

They were victims. David Cameron and his sidekick George Osborne, they were victims to the same mindset that afflicted Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown. In the run-up to the 2010 general election. David Cameron made it his business to signal to Rupert Murdoch that he would do exactly what Murdoch wanted.

So he promised Ofcom, which is the regulatory body for media would be emasculated and have its powers virtually removed. One aspect that we haven't mentioned was the huge Murdoch assault on the BBC. He can't abide the BBC because it's so powerful and it represents a different model of broadcasting from the one that he favours.

David Cameron signalled that he would stop the increased funding for the BBC. And it's only I think since the general election … indeed until very, very recently, until the phone hacking scandal broke and began to embroil government ministers and the police and so on -- it's only then that David Cameron has realised the dangers that he's been running. But it's too late now and I think the damage has been done. Both Murdoch and Cameron are now trying to disengage from each other, but the lid has been lifted a bit, a little corner of the cover has been lifted and the ordinary voter and the electorate can see how closed, how incestuous almost the relationship has been.

The irony is that one of the key issues for Murdoch in Britain was clearing the way for him to acquire the portion of BSkyB that he did not already own. In New Zealand, there would be no impediment to him should he want to do the same with Sky Television, which is presetly 43% owned by News Limited.

In most countries it is impossible for one interest in the media to so much control one of the popular elements of broadcasting that they can force everybody who wants to access that form of programming to pay a fee to join up. Yet in New Zealand we have allowed that happen with Sky's monopoly now, virtually of sport and particularly rugby. And that has meant that we've now reached a tipping point -- there's no going back now. And that is very much the Murdoch strategy in all the markets in which he operates. It is now really impossible for challengers to be able to raise enough revenue to be able to outbid Sky for any programme that they choose to broadcast.

So TVNZ or TV3 really now just have to pick up the crumbs. Anything that Sky doesn't want, they may be able to broadcast. But otherwise, Sky is now not only commanding advertising revenue that has become comparable to that of TV3 or TVNZ, so it's got exactly the same source of revenue in that respect, but it's seeling subscripting to approaching 60% of the population.

Not through same culture of influence we have seen revealed in Britain, surely?

I don't think there's been any real parallel to the close relationship between Murdoch or a Murdoch family member or senior executive on the one hand and British Prime Ministers and government ministers on the other. I don't think that has quite happened.

But I think governments have been very wary of getting offside with Murdoch interests in this country. I think sometimes because they genuinely believe, as I think is true probably of the present government, that Sky Television has been good -- they place no value on public service broadcasting.

I think it has been more a question of community of interest, a sympathy, an unwillingness to get involved -- let Sky do what they can. I think that's been the New Zealand situation, as opposed to the more tightly regulated situation we find in Britain where in order to navigate his way through, Murdoch has had to get support positive support from government …

I don't think there's any disposition on the part of NZ politicians to get in his way at all.

And what did Gould hope for from the long accounting of the Leveson inquiry?

I hope that politicians will have learnt that a little self-respect is a not a bad thing. To prostitute yourself to media interests is not a good way to be.

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