Deal Or No Deal: the Murdoch factor and our democratic deficit

Whether you believe there was an overall agreement between the Tories and News Corp (as Anthony Barnett does) or not (David Elstein's view), the underlying story of the failed BSkyB take-over is that Rupert Murdoch's great skill has been to fill the vacuum created by the feeble structures in our media and our politics.

David Elstein
5 June 2012

Whether you believe there was an overall agreement between the Tories and News Corp (as Anthony Barnett does) or not (David Elstein's view), the underlying story of the failed BSkyB take-over is that Rupert Murdoch's great skill has been to fill the vacuum created by the feeble structures in our media and our politics.This long (5,500 words) and detailed philippic in OurKingdom's debate over the grand conspiracy thesis poses the larger question of what's wrong with the UK media as a whole.

It has been a frustrating fortnight for the supporters of the "media alliance" - The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Mail, The Mirror, the BBC and Channel 4 - those unlikely bedfellows whose deep opposition to the attempt by News Corp to take full ownership of BSkyB continues to slant their reporting of the Leveson inquiry (a slant that Peter Preston of The Guardian has recently acknowledged).

They could barely conceal their dismay and anger at David Cameron's instant decision not to refer Jeremy Hunt - his Secretary of State for Culture, the Olympics, Media and Sport - to an inquiry into his behaviour during his supervision of the plurality review that Vince Cable had ordered (before his responsibilities were transferred to Hunt) in relation to the News Corp bid.

After all, Hunt had made clear, in public and private, his support for the acquisition, subject to any plurality test. He had engaged in phone and text contact with James Murdoch despite official advice not to have anything other than minuted official meetings with anyone involved in the transaction whilst its plurality impact was being assessed. And his special advisor, Adam Smith, had received hundreds of phone calls, texts and emails from Fred Michel, a News Corp corporate affairs executive, during this period, but had had no contact with any of the many opponents of the bid. How could these actions be compatible with Hunt's quasi-judicial role as Secretary of State?

Yet Hunt survived six hours of interrogation at Leveson, demonstrating with irrefutable evidence that - far from favouring News Corp in any way, as the media alliance and Anthony Barnett have assumed - he repeatedly disappointed News Corp by following scrupulously the advice of regulators and civil servants as to how to proceed.

Indeed, it was he who identified how the phone-hacking scandal - which those advisers had said could have no bearing on the plurality review - could become relevant in deciding whether or not to accept undertakings from News Corp: undertakings that had been approved by Ofcom and would have enabled the take-over to be put to shareholders without a full examination by the Competition Commission if he had not taken the steps he did.

Part of the reason for the media alliance's frustration is that they - and many other commentators who should know better, including Anthony - actually believe their own mis-reporting of the facts.

Let's start with fact number one. All the competition and economic issues raised by the transaction had to be dealt with - and were dealt with - by the EU Competition Directorate. As the media alliance - those doughty defenders of a free press - have never published their secret memoranda to Vince Cable or the EU, we cannot be sure that all their arguments were rebutted, but the EU experts set out the supposed objections, and refuted each and every one of them.

Of course, many in the media alliance continue to argue these rejected points, on the assumption that their readers and viewers have forgotten the EU verdict, or were never informed of it. Anthony seizes on the "integrated media" model referred to by Jeremy Hunt in his note to David Cameron in December 2010 urging the Prime Minister not to let coalition policy be set by the naysayers, as if it were some great revelation of a secret News Corp agenda. He cites The Guardian's Dan Sabbagh as saying "this is just what we said at the time", as if no-one had taken any notice of his paper's views.

In fact, media integration was a commonplace proposition, whose pursuit the EU competition directorate not only declared perfectly legitimate, but pointed out was equally available to all News Corp's rivals if it had commercial validity. After all, the BBC had been pursuing it for years, and The Guardian "went iPad" well before The Times.

The fact is that the strongest rationale for the transaction was not some incremental advance in media inter-operability, but integration of all News Corp's worldwide satellite TV businesses. There was no better place for News Corp to invest the £7bn in its kitty than in a business it knew intimately, had launched initially, and already effectively controlled.

The second basic fact is that the BSkyB takeover was never in the gift of the Conservative party, the coalition government or David Cameron. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard experienced journalists assert that - but for the Milly Dowler revelation - the Tories would have "awarded" BSkyB to News Corp. The truth is that at no time did any politician ever have any such power.

The only politician who could ever influence the outcome was the Secretary of State in the relevant government department, and then only by choosing to subject the deal to expert scrutiny, in case it might (on an initial survey) and actually would (in the light of a full investigation) adversely affect media plurality in the UK. Judgement of that effect could only be made by the relevant regulators, not by any politician.

Even if the plurality test were successfully surmounted, the final decision would rest, not with a politician, but with the owners of the 61 per cent of BSkyB's shares not already in the hands of News Corp: and as it happened, before the proposal was withdrawn, the gap between what News Corp was prepared to offer, and the price many shareholders were demanding, was very large.

Although the Secretary of State's role was inherently limited, it had to be performed in a quasi-judicial fashion, according to the Enterprise Act 2002. This concept is widely misunderstood, not least because of the persistent misreporting by the media alliance's news outlets.

Judges are not supposed to have any previous meaningful contact with parties involved in litigation, and certainly should have no views on the merits of a case in advance of hearing it. However, in the case where a Secretary of State is meant to be acting in a quasi-judicial fashion, the question is what he or she is required to judge.

With a transaction involving the Murdochs, the chances of finding a senior politician who had had never had contact with them, or had no opinion of them, was minimal. That was not the point: in the case of the BSkyB transaction, something much narrower was being judged - whether or not the transaction might negatively affect media plurality.

This involved five steps. First, assessing representations to see whether regulators should be invited to consider the question of plurality (something that, for instance, never happened when Northern and Shell acquired Channel Five). Secondly, on receiving a report from the regulators, judging whether to accept it. Thirdly, if the report recommended deeper inquiry, asking the adversely affected party if it wanted to offer undertakings that would remedy the problems raised in the report, such that further inquiry would not be needed. Fourthly, in the absence of such undertakings, judging whether to refer the matter for deeper inquiry. Fifthly, judging whether to accept the verdict of that deeper inquiry.

On the first of these steps, the only advice available to the Secretary of State was within his own department, as by definition regulators would not be involved unless he invited them to be. Thereafter, detailed regulatory advice would always be available. It was to Vince Cable that the first step presented itself, and within 24 hours of News Corp formally submitting its bid to the EU authorities, he had exercised his discretion by referring the plurality issue to Ofcom. It later transpired that he had privately regarded himself to be at war with the Murdochs, and might have viewed this decision as part of that war. However, in practice, it could do little to delay the transaction, unless Ofcom found there might indeed be a problem.

Many people have been puzzled as to why Cable's hostility to the deal should have required his removal from the quasi-judicial role, whereas Jeremy Hunt's public (and private) enthusiasm for the deal did not disqualify him. In fact, if Cable had openly expressed personal doubt about the transaction, but pledged to to perform his quasi-judicial role conscientiously, he could have probably retained it. It was the shock of the way in which his views came out, and the implication that he had decided to refer the bid to Ofcom, not on the merits but as a deliberately obstructive act, that led him to volunteer giving up the BSkyB role - perhaps as part of a deal where he would not actually be asked to resign his job.

Steps two, three and four of the process were handed to Hunt, as his department was clearly the one whose workload was most closely involved with media plurality issues. He operated exactly as was required, taking advice from lawyers and regulators (led by Ofcom) at every turn, and never over-riding that advice, however misguided he might privately have found it. Step five was never required, as News Corp eventually withdrew its bid, but there can be little doubt that Hunt would have followed the advice of the Competition Commission, a more senior and more experienced regulator than Ofcom, if the process had continued that far.

The third basic fact is that the process was not compromised by the inter-action with News Corp. Many senior experts - including the former Cabinet Secretary - have expressed surprise that the DCMS contact was overwhelmingly with News Corp, and not with opponents of the bid. Yet the DCMS public announcement on January 25th 2011 made crystal clear that section 104 of the Enterprise Act 2002 obliges the Secretary of State to consult those parties who might be adversely affected by the initial plurality report. As this announcement was re-published as part of the "Rubicon" emails, there is no excuse for missing the point.

By definition, the only party adversely affected by the Ofcom report was News Corp. If News Corp wished to offer undertakings in lieu of a reference to the Competition Commission (as had been recommended by the Ofcom report), the correct process was to see what was on offer, decide whether there might be something worth considering by Ofcom (and its fellow regulator, the OFT), find out if the undertakings satisfied the regulators, and only then invite the views of opponents of the deal. The senior "experts" had read neither the Act nor the DCMS press releases: they were simply wrong.

Of course, the formal contacts with News Corp were all fully minuted. What Hunt and DCMS officials did not realise was the astonishing extent of the second level contact that News Corp's corporate affairs man, Fred Michel, was having with Hunt's special adviser, Adam Smith. They imagined Smith was just taking on the day to day inquiries from News Corp, as was his assigned task. Instead, Michel subjected Smith to a barrage of emails, texts and phone calls - almost 1,000 in a 6-month period - which Smith did his best to fend off or absorb, without ever telling his boss or his departmental colleagues of the sheer scale of Michel's obsessive pursuit of him.

As it turned out, the Leveson inquiry conceded that there was absolutely nothing that Smith told Michel that was of any significance. Indeed, the first plank of Anthony's grand bargain theory - the idea that Operation Rubicon was a joint Conservative/News Corp code name for the transaction - turned out to be an unfortunate error on the part of The Economist. Only News Corp used this code name, in just seven of the released emails, all internal - and three of the seven actually reference the Lib Dems, not the Tories.

That The Economist is part-owned by the owner of the Financial Times - itself a supporter of the anti-Murdoch alliance - is even more unfortunate. I have learned to take with a pinch of salt anything on this subject published or broadcast by members of the alliance - any claim that they provide impartial reporting has been fundamentally undermined by their advocacy.

Smith conceded that - especially in the exchange of texts with Michel - he had occasionally been too chummy, and that the tone and extent of his contact with Michel probably overstepped the boundaries of what was appropriate: that is why he resigned when the details were published. Yet if we examine substance rather than surface, the evidence of some kind of back-door deal evaporates. Indeed, as Hunt rather laboriously spelled out to Leveson, even though he was personally a supporter of the deal, when it came to the plurality review he repeatedly acted against the urgent pleadings of News Corp.

They asked him not to publish the Ofcom report. He published it. They asked him publicly to describe their 'undertakings in lieu' (UILs) as "strong". He refused. They wanted him to ignore or over-ride Ofcom's objections to the UILs. He refused. They urged him to speed up the process. He allowed the regulators to set the pace. They bitterly complained that he was failing to show any backbone in not dismissing Ofcom's views: to which he replied that "he would be absolutely killed if he did such a thing". When an exasperated News Corp said it "could decide at any moment to withdraw", the reply was that such a threat "would not influence his views".

It was Hunt who first raised with Ofcom the question of whether the growing evidence of wholesale phone-hacking, and the weak corporate governance that had left it uninvestigated for years, undermined the credibility of News Corp's promises to stick to the UILs. This in turn led Ofcom to announce a "fit and proper person" test, which led News Corp to withdraw the UILs, which led Hunt to refer the bid to the Competition Commission, after which the Milly Dowler revelations led News Corp to withdraw the bid altogether.

Instead of praising Hunt for his careful and scrupulous behaviour, Labour and the media alliance have demanded Hunt's resignation, claiming that he supposedly compromised his quasi-judicial role in managing the plurality review, and then misled Parliament in denying he had done so. The supposed evidence for these claims was that in addition to publicly stating that - subject to plurality concerns - he saw nothing wrong with the transaction (an entirely legitimate and widely-held view), he had privately written to the Prime Minister making very similar points.

Yet his every substantive action positively underlined his quasi-judicial approach. He may have been unduly courteous and even friendly in his text and phone call exchanges with Michel and James Murdoch, but he played the plurality review entirely by the book. Courtesy has never previously been thought sufficient grounds for ministerial resignations. And although strict constitutionalists might insist that the errors of tone and scale Smith committed effectively compromised his minister, Smith's evidence at Leveson actually tilted the argument back to why he needed to resign at all.

Unlike Hunt, Smith did not much care whether the transaction succeeded or not.  He simply had a small part to play in a complex and heated process, which he tried to fulfil as best he could: fending off the incessantly importunate Michel - and by the end of the saga, his irritation with Michel showed through in his emails, which became progressively terser and more unhelpful.

I would only disagree with Hunt on one point he made to Leveson. Although he could see why plurality reviews might need some level of involvement by an accountable cabinet member (even acting in a personal capacity), he said he could also see the case for leaving these matters entirely to regulators. The irony here is that the most biased behaviour in the whole transaction came, not from politicians, but from Ofcom itself.

The original Ofcom report was not only absurd in its conclusions, but so fundamentally flawed in its methodology as to leave little room for doubt that its entire approach was prejudicial to News Corp. The fact of the matter was that Ofcom was embroiled in a bitter legal argument with BSkyB (whose then chairman, James Murdoch, was also the lead executive for News Corp in the transaction). This legal row - which has still not been resolved - was over the statutory basis for Ofcom's imposition of wholesale price controls on BSkyB when it was required to supply sports channels to the likes of BT and Virgin Media. If Ofcom eventually loses, its credibility will suffer a near-fatal blow.

Moreover, there was a central illogicality to the Ofcom approach. The issue under consideration was whether there would be a reduction in media plurality if News Corp took full control of BSkyB, including the only bit of BSkyB that was relevant, which was Sky News. Yet when Ofcom acknowledged the overwhelmingly dominant position of the BBC as a supplier of news, it took the view that this did not matter, because the BBC was committed to impartiality and did not tell people how to vote.

Of course, exactly the same applies to Sky News. Indeed, unlike the BBC, Sky News is accountable directly to Ofcom for its compliance with Ofcom's impartiality rules. If it ceased to be impartial, let alone started advocating on behalf of a political viewpoint, it would rapidly be deprived of its Ofcom broadcast licence. The only possible basis for there being a concern as to whether News Corp owned more or less of Sky News would be if Ofcom had lost confidence in its ability to operate its own licensing rules.

Ofcom ignored this illogicality. And in the argument over the UILs, it went further. It demanded that James Murdoch withdraw as chairman of Sky News when it was spun off from BSkyB. The notion that the board of BSkyB, let alone the chairman acting alone, had ever had any influence over the content of Sky News was deeply insulting to the highly professional journalistic staff of that organisation. That this was entirely personal as an Ofcom demand was crystal clear to the DCMS.

Indeed, as Adam Smith told Leveson, it was regarded as a deal-stopper by News Corp and was initially rejected, even though that might have led to the deal being abandoned. Eventually, through grinding teeth, News Corp conceded the humiliating point, finally realising that Hunt had decided to exercise absolutely no discretion in the whole process.

And perhaps this is the most surprising thing about the issue of a quasi-judicial approach: News Corp just didn't get it. They could not believe that their standard tactic of all-out political pressure was not just misguided, but counter-productive. Time after time they were told that it was pointless lobbying every Lib Dem they could find in the hope of influencing Vince Cable, and that Vince was making a personal decision, not a political decision.

They went right on lobbying, progressively alienating everyone they approached. Michel himself reported to James Murdoch that "there was absolutely no upside" in using anyone from News International (publishers of the News of the World and The Sun) to lobby: yet the chairman and chief executive of NI (Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks) continued to lobby like mad.

It was surprising that the astute lawyers inside News Corp - who were copied on so many of the Michel emails - did not warn him that he was in danger of undermining the validity of the quasi-judicial process, such that it might be open to judicial review if the outcome were favourable to News Corp. Smith warned Michel, immediately after Hunt was put in charge of the plurality review, against giving News Corp's opponents a chance to attack the fairness of the process. But the legal department dog failed to bark, and the demented behaviour (Michel admitted he was a texting addict) continued on its self-destructive course.

But another dog also failed to bark. Examine the Michel emails in detail and one clear fact emerges: News Corp clearly had no deal in place with the Conservatives, just as they had no levers to pull, and they had no favours to call in. There are no celebratory messages after Cable is replaced by Hunt. All they had was endless but frustrating access to a 30-year-old junior functionary. Indeed, in one of the funniest moments of the Leveson inquiry, Adam Smith was asked not only why he seemed prepared to take calls from Michel even at 3 in the morning ("actually, I was in the office with my colleagues working through the night on announcements and I needed his input") but also why he had no dealings with any member of the media alliance, replying: "none of them ever approached me". How wise they were!

So we come to fact number four: there never was a "grand bargain" between the Tories and News Corp. The closest their views came together was before the election, when both were attacking Ofcom as a bureaucracy that needed its remit trimmed. Yet the Tories needed no cue from James Murdoch to take this line. Ofcom was - along with the UK Film Council - the most blatantly political of Labour's creations, run from day one to the present by Labour loyalists (first by Stephen Carter, who accepted a job in Brown's government soon after handing over to Ed Richards, who had served in Blair's office in Downing Street - if Richards succeeds in his bid to run the BBC, it is a racing certainty that his replacement at Ofcom will not be a known Labour supporter). Hunt caustically noted that Carter's sole contribution as a minister to the statute book - the Digital Economy Act - mentioned Ofcom 159 times.

And Hunt had a particular reason for criticising Ofcom before the election.  He had signalled for months that he wanted to introduce local TV if he were given the DCMS job, and strongly criticised Ofcom's attempt to pre-empt this by awarding regional - as distinct from local - news franchises, funded out of the digital switchover element in the licence fee. When the franchise process was abandoned just before the election, the anti-Ofcom rhetoric was toned down.  Indeed, in office, the coalition increased Ofcom's powers, by subsuming Postcomm's functions into it. Hunt and his deputy, Ed Vaizey, have consistently praised Ofcom as a regulator, which must have disappointed News Corp.

Hunt also promised one change - and one change only - in the media cross-ownership rules: removal of the restrictions facing local newspaper groups seeking to own local broadcast outlets. This change can only help News Corp's biggest press competitors, Trinity Mirror and the Daily Mail, as they are major players in local newspapers, whereas News Corp has no presence.

Hunt's pursuit of local TV distributed terrestrially is certainly no help to BSkyB's web-based version, and has the potential to cause conflict if BSkyB's current offer to aid viewers trying to find the Hunt stations through its electronic programme guide is deemed inadequate. There has been speculation that Ofcom will ask for slot 6 on the EPG, presently occupied by Sky One: a proposal that would trigger fierce resistance.

Hunt's funding of broadband roll-out - another pre-election pledge, again using money from the licence fee - is much more likely to benefit BSkyB's powerful rival, BT, than BSkyB. As for the licence fee settlement itself - with the level frozen, but guaranteed through to 2017 - that would have surely dissatisfied News Corp, which had been demanding a big cut in the licence fee and a much smaller BBC. Hunt's public commitment to "a strong BBC" will not have been music to James Murdoch's ears. And Cameron's close personal relationship with Google - whose views on IP protection were diametrically opposed to News Corp's - was clearly alarming for the Murdochs.

What is left of Anthony's notion of a "re-configuring of the UK's entire media space", as he imagined had been pre-agreed between the Tories and Murdoch? Ah yes: the ending of the news impartiality rules in broadcasting, as proposed by James Murdoch in his MacTaggart lecture. The only problem is that the sole supporter of this idea is Mark Thompson, the BBC's director general: it is strongly opposed by Sky News.

Anthony argued that Murdoch's failure to deliver a Tory victory in the election is the only reason why his supposed "grand bargain" has not been delivered. It is hard to see how that can be sustained: only 5% of voters read a News Corp newspaper each day - how was Murdoch expected to deliver more than the editorial support of the papers themselves?

Since Hunt's testimony to Leveson, Anthony has changed his line of attack. It is not any explicit policy that the Tories and the Murdochs have cooked up together, but a shared general belief in "corporate supremacy". Worse than that, News Corp is a "foreign corporation". It is, says Anthony, every politician's "patriotic duty to protect Britain from any further expansion" of Murdochian influence.

I doubt Anthony needs reminding of Dr Johnson's view of those who are reduced to invoking patriotism as their primary argument. I am sure he is aware that no government could prevent News Corp perfectly legitimately returning to the BSkyB take-over trail, and succeeding by the simple tactic of either closing the loss-making Sky News (so cementing yet more solidly the BBC's dominant position as a news provider in the UK) or moving BSkyB out of the UK altogether, to a jurisdiction that is less hostile to foreign-owned corporations.

For Anthony, any place for the Murdochs in Britain, other than behind bars, is unwelcome. They have "engaged in a criminal conspiracy". It is well known that the Murdochs - unlike some other newspaper proprietors - do not sue for libel, so it is unlikely that open Democracy will be closed down for this unsustainable claim. That criminality was rife inside News International is self-evident. That Rupert and James Murdoch are morally responsible for what their employees did is clear.

But that they directly conspired in a cover up ("so bold it was certainly ordered by Rupert Murdoch") of the criminality is simply not supported by any known evidence. Indeed, the police operation investigating corruption of public officials by NI employees is based entirely on the sifting of over 300 million emails by News Corp's Management and Standards Committee, set up by Rupert Murdoch, which resulted in the handing over of all evidence discovered to Scotland Yard.

Perhaps Our Kingdom should be re-named Little England? Would Anthony have been happier if the late and unlamented bouncing Czech (but naturalized Briton) Robert Maxwell, had succeeded in cable and satellite TV, rather than Murdoch? If BSkyB, with its billion pound investment in news (entirely driven by Rupert Murdoch), and its £600 million annual investment in original UK programming, were to disappear, would he be pleased to see our pay-tv industry dominated by Virgin Media, which spends not a penny on news or any other original content, and is majority owned by US hedge funds?

It is because we have such a sclerotic and state-dominated media sector that foreign capital was needed to bring all the benefits of pay-tv to the UK. Our first instinct in any broadcasting development is to look to the established players.  Direct broadcast by satellite was first entrusted to the BBC, and then to a consortium involving nearly all UK broadcasters - the club of 21.  When these initiatives failed, there was a beauty parade of potential operators of an official UK medium-powered satellite service.

Murdoch applied and was rejected.  The successful consortium included Granada Television, Pearson, Virgin, Australian buccaneer Alan Bond and several other prominent companies.  It launched late, with inherently limited technology, and found itself outflanked by a company called Sky that Murdoch had nursed for nearly a decade, and sparked into re-focused life in order to pre-empt the consortium, which collapsed into his arms within six months. Murdoch had gambled the whole of News Corp on this adventure.

More recently, we have seen the On Digital consortium fail in its challenge to Sky, and other consortium ventures launched called Project Kangaroo and Project Canvas.  In the absence of real entrepreneurs, the British instinct is to default to the old guard.

The same amateurishness applies to print.  The Independent was always under-capitalised and eventually became a vanity project for a KGB colonel.  The Daily Mirror succumbed to the crooked charms of Maxwell.  Even the Telegraph Group was snapped up by a high-living Canadian mogul, who swapped his passport for a British peerage.  After he was jailed for misappropriating company funds, the titles were sold to a pair of recluse property developers - UK citizens who choose to live offshore.

In politics, too, Murdoch filled a vacuum. UK newspaper proprietors have for decades enjoyed distinct political influence. When the huge success of The Sun turned Murdoch into our dominant newspaper publisher, he was only too happy to flex political muscles, and politicians gravitated to him even though his newspapers' circulation - in line with everyone else's - halved, and continued to decline.  He didn't even have to apply for a passport or live in the UK to be lionised by a political class too uncertain of its connection with the electorate to eschew such a connection.

Bemoan Murdoch's ruthlessness, by all means. Berate his failure to prevent, acknowledge or promptly root out the vile and criminal activity in his UK newspapers. Blame him for the insidious corruption that decades of courting - and being courted by - politicians of all stripes engendered. But which passport he holds can surely not be a rational basis for judging him.

Meanwhile, the Leveson circus moves on. Soon it will be Cameron's turn to appear. The shine has come off his premiership and his coalition, and the deep foolishness of his connections with News Corp has been fully exposed. Ironically, the trail of embarrassment will almost certainly turn out to be unique in our governmental annals. Casual texting, unmonitored phone calls, informal emails, any connection with any News Corp PR man - they are all already Whitehall history. There will be no comparable contemporary revelations in any future similar situation: that, at least, is something our governing class has learned.

But are we any closer to understanding what is really at stake? Whatever political power Murdoch wielded has gone, forever. Leveson seems to be edging towards a banal set of recommendations for future regulation of the press, based on "sensible" and "agreed" principles (as Michael Gove acidly asked the judge, sensible to whom and agreed by whom?). We have seen no proposals to align all the different means of invading privacy - blagging, hacking and stealing information - such that they all carry possible jail sentences, but are also all open to a possible defence of public interest. We still have an Information Commissioner too timid to attack the most blatant invasive behaviour with prosecutorial zeal - most recently, the StreetView activities of Google.

It is not the criminal behaviour of newspapers that requires a press regulator - that is a task for the police and the courts. Nor is media plurality reform the highest priority: we have more to fear from a super-dominant BBC and a partisan media regulator than from any newspaper group.  We have to live with a version of press freedom that allows the media alliance to offer its distorting mirror of the world - because, as Gove put it, any version of press freedom that leaves nobody offended is not worth having.

The biggest problem with Anthony's entire thesis is that it gives both the Tories and News Corp too much credit. Whatever benefit each side imagined it might obtain from the other in their dubious social entanglements turned out to be illusory. There are ideological gaps between them, and even bigger policy gaps. Ironically, even Fred Michel could see the danger of his own attempts to cosy up (to use Cameron's repellent phrase) to the coalition: "given the opposition has very few arguments on the impact on media plurality, they decided to focus on the process and political bias".

Indeed they did: and Hunt, Cameron, Murdoch and Michel have only themselves to blame for the rashly intimate exchanges that gave their opponents a chance to play the man when the ball was out of reach. The "process and political bias" arguments may be only slightly less flimsy than the media plurality ones, but Labour and the media alliance will work hard to leave in the minds of the electorate the wholly false perception that only brave Guardian journalism prevented Tory dodginess from enabling a Murdoch deal too far.

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