Murdoch, New Labour and ‘influence’ in British politics


Dr Oliver Daddow, University of Leicester

Dr Oliver DaddowThe Hack-gate revelations about criminal journalistic activity at the News of the World newspaper raised a series of fascinating questions about journalism and politics in Britain. First, within a newspaper that helped pioneer honest and incisive investigative journalism, how had the phone hacking culture been allowed to take hold in such a way that it became, as it would appear, standard operational practice for some journalists on the News of the World? Second, to what extent did senior News of the World editors, board members, chairman of News International James Murdoch and the paper’s owner Rupert Murdoch know of these practices? Third, have any other journalists outside of News of the World used phone hacking to obtain personal information? Fourth, what form of regulation is best positioned to check against the prospect of such practices being used in the future?

Finally, and significantly for any student of politics, what were the depth of the links between the press, politicians and the police that led many of them to ignore what was obviously a problem for so long? This sorry episode has instigated renewed attention to the behind-closed-doors influence of media moguls on the governance of contemporary Britain.

That Rupert Murdoch was known to be a frequent visitor to Downing Street during the Blair years 1997-2010 hardly came as a great surprise. The sheer number of lunches, soirées and formal meetings between New Labour leaders and media people recorded by Number 10 diarists and former government insiders is nothing short of astonishing. Always a political necessity, New Labour took its efforts to influence the media to levels previously unseen in British politics.

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson (the latter two both had experience of working in television) co-opted several former journalists such as Alastair Campbell (former political correspondent at the Daily Mirror) and Lance Price (BBC journalist) into New Labour’s ranks to help oil the wheels of its strategic communications operation. In an echo of Blair, but much more controversially as it turned out, David Cameron hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson to help run his media operation in 2007. The Downing Street communications team massages relations with the media, especially the lobby journalists and political correspondents, and acts as a sounding board for government initiatives. They are involved throughout the policy process, in everything from policy deliberation to writing speeches. As ‘spokesman for the Prime Minister’ (or the anonymous ‘source close to the Prime Minister’) a communications chief has two main functions. First he or she puts the gloss on the government’s political programme and achievements. Secondly, they rebut, defuse or play down revelations that could potentially damage the government’s policy programme or image.

As the Blair years progressed, the New Labour operation began to splinter as the Blair and Brown camps cultivated links with quite different segments of the press. Blair continued to favour his key 1997 election supporter, Murdoch and News International. Looking to broaden his media base ahead of taking over as Prime Minister, Brown increasingly courted Lord Dacre and the Mail Group. Mutual recriminations, back-biting and selective leaking from Downing Street and Treasury became everyday practice in Whitehall. Uncomfortable and infrequent discussions between Blair and Brown about how to limit the public spats between their respective camps often ended in arguments and yet more opprobrium being heaped on each other in the press.

We learn two main things from press-political relations during the New Labour years. One is that certain organs of the press came to exercise a very strong and in some ways destabilising influence over government activity. For example, former ‘spin doctor’ Lance Price has argued that Rupert Murdoch was the 24th member of the Blair Cabinet. That might be going too far because Blair hardly used his Cabinet as a source of policy deliberation or advice. Murdoch, rather, was a shadowy member of Blair’s unofficial ‘denocracy’, his team of close confidantes which met sometimes several times daily to decide the course of government action. Murdoch might not have been there in person but he was always there in spirit because Campbell’s finely wired political antenna helped Blair appreciate what ‘messages’ would work best to keep tabloid-reading ‘middle England’ voters on side. Hopes for a positive British European policy were dashed from very early on as a result of Blair seeking to keep Murdoch sweet, although that is a story for another day.

British Foreigh Policy the New Labour Years Daddow and Gaskarth edsWe learn secondly that while they can be useful to politicians in certain circumstances, media moguls can be fickle. Newspaper owners are mostly interested in politics for what they can get out of it in terms of selling advertising space and sales revenue; it is the politics of business not the business of politics that moves them the most. The wheel turned full circle for New Labour when Murdoch, disillusioned with Brown’s government and hoping to back a dead-set winner (he was partly right), came out in support of David Cameron’s Conservative Party at the 2010 election. Brown was left without much in the way of a political narrative to sell, trying to smile bravely as he reactively lurched from one crisis to the next.

What all this suggests is that politicians are correct to focus on their branding and image, but that this must follow from, not lead, their attempts to construct public consensus behind a set of domestic and foreign policies that hang together as a cohesive whole. Buying media influence may be a necessary short-term expedient but if those connections come to undermine the core values of a party’s ideology and legislative programme it will prove disastrous in the long-run.

Dr Oliver Daddow is Reader in International Politics at the University of Leicester. He is the author of, amongst other things, New Labour and the European Union (Manchester University Press, 2011), Britain and Europe since 1945 (Manchester University Press, 2004) and is the co-editor of British Foreign Policy: The New Labour Years (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

11 Comments

  1. Tom Hilldon
    Posted 09/11/2011 at 21:12 | Permalink

    Murdoch ‘influence’, hmmm. People who read the Sun probably don’t vote. People who read The Times are not floating voters. Only a politician could not work that one out.

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  2. Ron Jones
    Posted 08/11/2011 at 22:08 | Permalink

    The connection between Murdoch and New Labour can be summed up in one word “ego”. British foreign policy has been based on ego since 1945 coupled with the desire to sell our “Amstrad” military equipment to dictators and other ne’er do wells. The ethical foreign policy did not last out the week of its announcement before we were back to arms and ego. Murdoch’s ego leads him to influence politicians and politicians’ egos lead them to abandon common sense and court Mr Murdoch. British politicians do not have to concern themselves about public opinion as Tony Blair showed when his ego lead him to follow President Bush. What cared he that the polls showed that 80% of the population was against it. He could rely on the craven and stupid in the commons to show he had the “support of the nation”. That’s what you can do when you only need 110,000 votes to win an election. With so few to influence, the Sun and the Daily Mail can tip the balance or so they thought before the 2010 election proved otherwise and down the snakes went Mr Murdoch.

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  3. Alison Moody
    Posted 08/11/2011 at 21:13 | Permalink

    A spectrum indeed. Britain, Russia and Zimbabwe at one end and Finland, Germany and Switzerland at the other. Afghanistan is democratic at the local level but the process is very different and not at all obvious, particularly the influence of women. Of course, there is corruption but no more than in many western countries. My impression is that India is worse in that respect. It is no fun having to worry about bombs as any one who lived through Republican and Unionist terrorism will tell you but, in large parts of the country, life is peaceful and there is even economic growth.

    Certainly, Britain is more ideal in terms of political and human freedoms than China or North Korea but not in comparison to most European countries. Seventy percent of the people who vote in our General Elections have the political freedom from having that vote have any effect on the outcome of the election. Not something to which most Europeans would aspire.

    One thing I can say with certainty, you are not interested in probing the hidden sources of influence on democratic institutions as you claim. If you had written about MSP and the press then I might have agreed with you. You are interested in the things that interested me when I was in my 20s but the time I was your age I had moved on to matters of more weight, proportionality being merely one of them.

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    Oliver Daddow Reply:

    Dear Alison and Ron,

    I agree with a lot of what you say in your last posts. However, I would again point out that this article is a tiny think-piece related to many much larger research projects, some ‘weightier’ some probably less so. But all of them matter because they are probing the limits of contemporary human understandings of politics and society in some fashion.

    I think that the study of political language and the inequalities inbuilt into it are more than constructive areas for study, raising as they necessarily do historicist and philosophical questions about how we got to our contemporary political ‘state’. To suggest that some matters are more ‘weighty’ and worthy of study than others would, to me, seem to fly in the face of a pluralist and democratic understanding of what the academic and political worlds are all about. We will never have complete knowledge of these issues, but in an increasingly small ‘c’ conservative social climate we should be encouraging all kinds of approaches to the study of politics. Sometimes the best discoveries come from the least obvious places!

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    Alison Moody Reply:

    A glimpse of the weightier projects would be a most welcome addition to the Exchanges Oliver.

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  4. Alison Moody
    Posted 08/11/2011 at 20:23 | Permalink

    Two posts have disappeared – again. Where do they go?

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    LXmoderator Reply:

    Hi Alison, sorry to hear that a couple of posts have gone AWOL. I’ll scour the system and see if I can retrieve them. Apologies for any inconvenience. The Moderator.

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  5. Oliver Daddow
    Posted 07/11/2011 at 13:49 | Permalink

    To Alison and Richard,

    On democracy. It’s not an ‘absolute’ concept. It changes over time, and always has. I tend to see it more as a spectrum, with some states being ‘more’ democratic and others ‘less’ so. As soon as you hold any country up to an idealised view of democracy they’re going to fall short; and states do routinely do things to repress freedoms and so on that I disagree with. Independent studies such as those by Freedom House routinely show Britain far nearer the ‘ideal’ in terms of its human and political freedoms than many, many other states. Try living in Kabul for a bit and see how democratic that feels! Sometimes having a comparative perspective can reveal the good things about where we live as well as the bad.

    So, I would never say that Britain is not a democracy, though I would hope that from my work you can see that I am interested in probing in new ways the hidden sources of influence on democratic institutions. It is through such critique that I hope to spark debates such as this.

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    Chris Williams Reply:

    Oliver, having 70% of the votes cast in an election having no effect on the out come approximates to Zimbabwe not Finland, Germany or even the USA. You are conflating personal and legal freedoms with electoral systems. There is only a limited correlation. You would never say that Britain is not a democracy because, as Alison said, you do not understand the electoral system for the UK parliament or you could not possibly accept it within the “spectrum” of democracy. The USA only falls into that spectrum because it has only two significant political parties. There is certainly no country in Europe and no civilised country in the rest of the world that has a less democratic electoral system, including Australia. Time to abandon the trivia and do a bit of real research to bring yourself up to speed!

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    Richard Hagan Reply:

    Oliver, the USA has the finest constitution and judicial system in the world to protect the rights of its citizens but, if a third political party arose it could easily become undemocratic. It’s electoral system as it stands has been accused of allowing a president to be elected on a minority of the votes cast because of the Electoral College system. Without the Electoral College, G.W. Bush would not been elected and the world woould be a different place today. Democracy matters. It has real effects.

    Margaret Thatcher never achieved the the number of votes gained by Ted Heath in any of her elections and he never achieved 50% of the vote. She assisted in the destruction of the manufacturing base of this country and now, a generation later, Consevatives, who once thought her a saint are saying that we need to rebalance the economy in favour of manufacturing. Mrs Thatcher only once achieved 40% of the vote. In a democracy she could only have governed in coalition which may have aided manufacturing and reduced the impact of the banking crisis years later. Democracy matters. It changes people’s lives. It is not to be brushed away as lightly as you say. How can you expect any one to take you seriously if you do not take democracy seriously?

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    Gerald Knightly Reply:

    Democracy has a spectrum. In the USSR one was free to vote but only for a candidate from one party. Democracy changes over time but in most democratic countries there is a reasonably serious attempt to match the votes cast to the candidates elected. In Britain, the last move forward was the emancipation of women. Since then there has been reform in provincial elections but not in national elections. Polititians selected the voting systems for the new parliaments and assemblies of the kingdom and they made them proportional using a selection of the most prevalent systems in Europe. They new it was necessary to avoid conflicts, particularly in N.I. When you compare these assemblies to the national one, you can see that reform would benefit the people not the politicians so reform will not be achieved unless coalitions are maintained by the voters for many parliaments.

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  6. Richard Hagan
    Posted 03/11/2011 at 20:50 | Permalink

    Meow Alison. A trifle harsh. Although, probably true.

    The lack of democracy at the highest levels of British government has not received the cold light of academic scrutiny to my knowledge that it deserves. Because the Lords tend to show more sense and less knavishness than MPs (with certain notable exceptions), we accept their non elected status. Having accepted such a hugely undemocratic chamber it is easier to accept that the other chamber only has the appearance of democracy and not the substance. In the public mind, the fact that a government can be changed at an election is sufficient. One set of crooks and fools can be removed an another set can take their place. The fact that one party can get a 66 seat majority with 36% of the votes and another party is forced to form a coalition with the same percentage does not resonate with the electorate. It will be interesting to see what the latest gerrymandering brings about and how the electorate reacts to it.

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  7. Alison Moody
    Posted 01/11/2011 at 21:25 | Permalink

    Oliver, I think the reason you did not understand what Ron had written is that you did not know that Britain is not a democracy. Is that true?
    No need to be ashamed. Many millions make the same mistake and the BBC is famous for positively discouraging comment on the subject. The press can’t stomach the thought of it so unless you had studied politics you could be forgiven for not knowing.

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  8. Ron Jones
    Posted 11/10/2011 at 18:12 | Permalink

    I read Chris Williams’ post with interest and it set me thinking. Why are academics interested in political fluff rather than in matters of substance. Surely a study of the effects of not living in a democracy would be more interesting. A comparison, say, between Britain and Switzerland in relation to social policy, immigration, taxation, etc would be much more interesting than the press and politicians. But if that is your area of interest, compare the relationship in Britain to that of a real democracy. That at least would provide something new to consider.

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    Oliver Daddow Reply:

    To Ron, re your post of 11 October. Is there not a certain irony in suggesting that we study the effects of not living in a democracy – what would be the ‘substance’ of such a study when the question begs the answer?!

    I’m not sure I agree with you, that studying the impact of Eurosceptical attitudes on British foreign policy is ‘fluff’. If you read my book which inspired this article you will see plenty of hard data analysed from a discourse perspective. It is in fact a case study of persuasion and self-persuasion in modern democracies.

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    Chris Williams Reply:

    Surely, the point Ron was making is that Britain is not a modern democracy like Switzerland and that must affect the relationships of press and politicians. It would be interesting to learn how Swiss politicians and press interact when faced with a referendum on nearly every matter of importance. The average Swiss votes in about 114 local and national referendums each year whereas in Britain approximately 70% of the votes cast in an average general election have no effect on the outcome, do not even elect an MP.

    It is true that Switzerland came late to democracy, only giving women the vote in 1971, but when they did they embraced it fully. Britain fully enfranchised women in 1930 and in 1931 the first of only two democraticly elected governments was elected. The next was 2010. A democratically elected goverment every 80 years does not really count as a democracy. Many dictatorships do better. This is the point I believe Ron was making. Why the English, it seems to be the English, do not wish to live in a democracy is a matter of substance that you could study rather than the relationship of undemocratically elected politicians have with the press, which, I have to agree with Ron, is somewhat fluffier.

    If your expenses won’t run to studying Switzerland you could do it on the cheap by studying the individual countries of the UK that are now all democracies in their own right.

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  9. Alison Moody
    Posted 24/09/2011 at 20:08 | Permalink

    I was expecting to reply to the post here yesterday but it has gone!

    Like that post I was surprised that the press did not highlight the fact that the AG had form. I put it down to the relationship between Blair and Murdoch but the post had an alternative view which I now can’t remember. Where did it go?

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  10. Richard Hagan
    Posted 23/09/2011 at 21:25 | Permalink

    The general attitude in Britain is that celebrities are fair game. If the public think this so will the police. If you can earn a few quid or get a retirement job on comfortable salary by your relationship with the press then what’s the problem?

    There was no golden age of policing or journalism. There was never a time when people were not prepared to abandon morality for tittle-tattle. Why do we pretend that events are somehow different this time around? Why do people prefer to give money to lawyers rather than their children’s mother? Why would you expect a woman who will sell you her body not sell the story of your infidelity to the press? These are eternal mysteries that demonstrate that human beings are truly, deeply, madly, stupid.

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  11. Chris Williams
    Posted 23/09/2011 at 20:47 | Permalink

    None of this is new. Newspaper proprietors have always sort to influence both their readers and the government of the day. It isn’t just to sell papers or gain advertisers, rich men buy newspapers to exert power and their own agenda. Politicians have always believed they can drive the story rather than be victims of it. Before mobile phones, journalists cultivated telephone switchboard operators and telephone engineers. After the Prince of Wales and Camilla were targeted you would think that celebrities would have more sense than to be indiscreet on a mobile phone but then infidelity is more difficult on a land line. Individual policemen have always sold stories to journalists or exchanged information for mutual benefit.

    Anyone who took the smallest interest in politics new that the Thatcher government had institutionalised the abuse of expenses in lieu of salary increases but it took the invention of the CD to accumulate a critical mass of data. Without a large amount of data the press does not have enough new material to sustain a story for several weeks. The Wikileaks stories are only interesting when they reveal systemic attitudes or perversities. There have been several stories of corrupt practices within the MOD, both on the BBC and Channel 4 but the public will only take notice when someone posts the CD to the Guardian or the Telegraph with a volume of data that cannot be ignored. The London Bond fiasco that cost the tax payer £900 million is almost unknown by the general public even though it destroyed the oldest department of government that had been fiercely independent for hundreds of years. The story should have damaged the Atorney General’s reputation but that had to wait for WMD several years later because no one was interested.

    Most people are either disinterrested in corrupt practices or prefer not to know but large volumes of data cannot be swept under the carpet. You can’t claim you were on holiday or watching the other channel. There is nowhere to hide, the public is forced to take notice. It is this particulary English head in the sand attitude to life that gives the press such influence. With only about 110,000 peopple to influence in order to win a General Election, the press will remain important to politicians until the English decide they would prefer to live in a democracy. Not much chance of that any time soon.

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