Dr Oliver Daddow, University of Leicester
The 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.
We 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).