The Murdochs and the Tories: madly intimate but was it a conspiracy, a response to Anthony Barnett

The way the Cameron-Osborne government got into bed with the Murdochs, father and son, was crazy, but was there a deal? Probably not, says David Elstein, and Anthony Barnett replies.

David Elstein
9 May 2012

Anthony Barnett has written a powerful and compelling indictment of the relationship between the Tory leadership and the Murdoch empire.  He is surely right to say that David Cameron was deeply foolish to take on Andy Coulson as his key press adviser, at the apparent behest of George Osborne, and reckless in then retaining him in a crucial government position after the election.

It was only the resurgence of the phone-hacking story which finally drove Coulson out of Downing Street.  It seems that Cameron was not even aware that Coulson was still receiving contractual payments from News International when he was first hired.  Yet the party leadership, including the shadow secretary of state for culture media and sport, Jeremy Hunt, seemed oblivious to the glaring conflict of interest as – in opposition – they signed on for key elements in the Murdoch media policy: squeeze the BBC, clip the wings of the media regulator, Ofcom, and de-regulate.

Shared objectives

I wrote for oD about the lack of wisdom and reality of those Tory policies, most extensively in a piece linked to my September 2009 Beesley Lecture .  (In passing, I should add that Hunt also embraced an ITV demand – the abolition of the Contract Rights Renewal system for advertisers that had been accepted by ITV as the price of the Carlton/Granada merger in 2003, but which had subsequently undermined their advertising revenues.)

All of these Tory media objectives were unrealistic; indeed, they were effectively abandoned after the 2010 election.  The penny-pinching BBC licence fee settlement came closest to meeting the Murdoch test, but as it was embraced by the BBC itself, it could not quite qualify as a “result”.  Indeed, I wrote a piece for oD in advance of the settlement pointing out that the BBC’s own strategic review, in promising savings of £600 million to be re-invested in its services, was effectively inviting a Tory government to seize those savings and deploy them elsewhere (which is what happened).

Ofcom, far from being cut down to size, was handed additional responsibilities.  Indeed, the Tories held their silence whilst in opposition when regulators barred BSkyB from owning 17.9% of ITV, and imposed on BSkyB fixed wholesale prices for its sports channels.

Also not mentioned by Anthony was Hunt’s biggest media project: closing down the Ofcom exercise in awarding regional news contracts, and instead plumping for the creation of local TV.  This was Hunt’s obsession through his years as shadow minister, and he has pursued it tenaciously in office.  It is something to which News International is at best indifferent – like most media companies, it regards the idea as quixotic in its impracticability – and at worst hostile.  BSkyB has its own local media project: web-based, as opposed to Hunt’s broadcast version.

Bizarrely – or perhaps not so, given the polarization of coverage of Murdoch businesses, with normally reliable newspapers slanting their reporting to match their commercial preferences – last week the Telegraph decided that because both Hunt and BSkyB were pursuing local TV, they must be in cahoots: a line taken up by Labour’s shadow culture minister, Helen Goodman, despite this spin being the diametric opposite of the truth.

On Monday, the Telegraph offered another high-spin story .  It carried the headline that Andy Coulson “would have profited” from a BSkyB deal because he continued to hold shares in News, even after his appointment as Cameron’s press chief.  Where does the quote come from?  Actually, it came from paragraph two of the story itself, as written by the reporter, Holly Watt.  

Nobody else offered this view, not least because it was impossible to say that shares in News would have risen if the deal had gone through: many shareholders were worried that Murdoch might overpay for the 60% of BSkyB he did not already own, just as he had paid nearly twice as much for The Wall Street Journal as it was worth (resulting in a $2 billion write-down two years later).  All we do know is that News shares have risen strongly since the deal collapsed: a fact not mentioned by the Telegraph.

But truth – as in most wars – has become a distinct casualty of the fierce battle between News Corp/News International (hereafter, News) and its opponents.  Even the BBC has been sucked into this battle.  Last month, Panorama ran a programme exploring the murky world of smart card hacking, involving the Israeli technology company, NDS, at that time owned by News.

The allegation made by Panorama was that NDS not only learned – directly or indirectly – how to hack the smart card of BSkyB’s rival, ITV Digital, but deliberately published the details, making it easy for pirates to produce working versions; and that this was the decisive reason for ITV Digital’s failure.

The difficulty for the Panorama thesis is that publishing the details of a hack actually makes life easier for the supposed victim, not harder.  It provides an opportunity to ensure that the next generation of cards issued to customers – at one time BSkyB was re-issuing cards every three months in order to stay ahead of its own brand of pirates – had solved the problem.

As for the supposed impact on ITV Digital, Panorama relied upon just one interviewee: a former member of the company’s discredited management.  The estimate of the number of pirate cards in circulation at the time of ITV Digital’s collapse was 100,000.  Even if every last one of their owners had become a genuine customer in the absence of pirate cards (deeply unlikely: even converting 10% of this total to full pay would have been a triumph), the annual benefit to ITV Digital would have been less than £15 million.

When ITV Digital actually went bust, it owed £1.25 billion, of which the largest amount was to the Football League, to whom it had pledged £315 million over 3 years.  The verdict of the administrators – who eventually salvaged 9p in the £ for creditors – was that ITV Digital had been a “deeply flawed business”.  Only at the level of complete insignificance could NDS (let alone News) be said to have “helped ruin” ITV Digital, as claimed by Anthony.

Any one of half a dozen knowledgeable experts could have told Panorama that the interview with the former manager was patently false and self-serving.  It seems that Panorama was not interested in truth: only allegations.  But then, the BBC’s own Director-General – in defiance of the Corporation’s obligation to impartiality – had actually signed the secret letter to Vince Cable from Murdoch’s press rivals, opposing the News bid for BSkyB.

The Chief Executive of ITV, with little more than two years’ experience in broadcasting, refused to sign the letter, observing shrewdly that to do so would undermine ITV’s claim to be running an impartial news service.

The BBC’s former chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, has publicly disparaged Rupert Murdoch’s improbable claim not to have used his media outlets to pursue commercial objectives.  But it was Lyons who failed to reprimand, let alone fire, the Director General responsible for the most flagrant breach of the BBC’s impartiality obligations in its 90-year history.

The Michel emails

None of this gainsays the thrust of Anthony’s attack.  The continuing closeness – intimacy, really – between News and the Conservatives after the election was madness, on both sides.  In practice, there was almost nothing the government could do for News; and however warm the Sun may have been in supporting the Tories in the election, there was no way any newspaper living in the real world could continue a policy of uncritical support of a government beset by error, misjudgement and occasional misfortune.

Anthony rightly directs us to the Michel emails as evidence of the closeness of the relationship between News and Hunt at the DCMS.   I would urge those interested to read the emails carefully, alongside the formal letters between Hunt, Ofcom and News that can be found on the DCMS website.

The first thing to be said is that, despite the constant references to Hunt by the News corporate affairs man, Michel, in his emails to bosses and colleagues, along the lines of “I have just spoken to JH...” or “Jeremy says...”, he was forced to admit to Leveson that he actually had no direct contact with Hunt at all.  “JH” was, it seems, Hunt’s special advisor, Adam Smith.  And again, we need to note that in the 163 pages, there are actually very few emails from Smith: the vast majority are emails reporting what he or somebody else purportedly said.

We have all come across people keen to exaggerate their own importance to their bosses, both in terms of their supposed inside track, and of the quality of the information thereby derived.  However, there is an underlying fact that needs particular emphasis: from the moment he took over from Vince Cable at the end of December 2010, Hunt insisted that he would act on the BSkyB bid simply and solely on the advice he received from officials and lawyers.

In other words, Hunt effectively abandoned any discretion he might have otherwise been able to exercise in the matter.  No doubt this was prudent, given his previous positive remarks about Murdoch, and the foolishness of Cable in admitting (not realising his words were being recorded) that he was at war with Murdoch, when he was meant to be acting in a quasi-judicial fashion.

As you read through the emails, this basic truth becomes clearer and clearer.  As soon as Hunt received the report from the media regulator, Ofcom, on the possible threat to media plurality posed by the transaction (all other economic issues having been disposed of by the EU Competition Directorate), he realised that it was deeply unsatisfactory and inherently biased (my reasons for coming to the same conclusion are spelled out in my post of March 4th 2011).

Michel’s emails record being asked for legal and other ammunition to counter this prejudice.  However, despite it being provided, Hunt never challenged the Ofcom report.  He was trapped by his previous pledge, and by the fear that if he did exercise his judgement, he would be denounced as a Murdoch stooge.

In effect – as Bruce Fireman has commented on Des Freeman’s April 25th post – Hunt’s special advisor found himself trying to keep News sweet whilst constantly giving Michel unwelcome information.  However much News was “told” (if, indeed, it was) that Hunt shared its objectives, Hunt was unable to deliver anything himself.  There was nothing inherently wrong in Hunt saying that his preference was to clear the transaction – why involve a further layer of expensive bureaucracy if there was no need?

However, without the say-so of Ofcom and the OFT, Hunt could not clear the transaction.  So News was induced to make more and more concessions to demands from Ofcom and the OFT in terms of the editorial and financial independence and sustainability of Sky News (the only matter in dispute), without which Hunt was constantly “minded to refer the transaction to the Competition Commission (CC)” (that is, follow the original Ofcom recommendation – see the correspondence).

Yet every time News offered new undertakings, the revised package had to be put out to consultation.  Objections from those determined to frustrate the deal at any cost (including the closure of Sky News) allowed Ofcom and the OFT to re-visit the deal.  The process dragged on, for month after month, with Michel – judging by his emails – slowly losing the will to live.

The huge paradox here is that the “shared objective” for News and Hunt – the avoidance of a reference to the CC – would actually have been the best outcome for News: indeed, one of the emails refers to a Media Show radio discussion between Chris Goodall of Enders Analysis (a key opponent of the deal) and myself, where we agreed that such a reference would most likely lead to a speedy approval of the bid.  This was primarily because, to block the deal, the CC would have to decide that the transaction would cause real damage to media plurality (a high hurdle), whereas the Ofcom report had only had to judge whether media plurality may be damaged (a low hurdle).

Of course, the Secretary of State could in theory over-ride a CC decision, one way or another.  If Vince Cable had continued to be the minister responsible, and had wanted to block a deal approved by the CC, notwithstanding the risk of being overturned at judicial review, he had retained that option.  However, Hunt had expressly ruled out over-riding official advice.

News was worried that a CC investigation would take too long: but the extended exchanges with Ofcom and the OFT in the end took far longer than any CC process would have done.  Moreover, the big advantage for News of a CC investigation was that it might well deal a severe blow to Ofcom, in exposing the weakness of its calculation of news consumption.

News had every reason to fear that Ofcom would not play fair: it was – and still is – embroiled in a tense legal battle with BSkyB over the legality of its decision to impose wholesale prices on BSkyB’s sports channels.  Losing that court case – which has involved the various participants in tens of millions of pounds of costs so far – would severely damage Ofcom’s credibility.  The CC, by contrast, had no institutional issues at stake.

Was there a Great Bargain?

Cable’s position is – as Anthony acknowledges in his response to comments – the biggest single question mark about the supposed Great Bargain.  If Cameron and the Tories were committed to serving the News agenda, the appointment of Cable to the business portfolio – which would oversee any plurality inquiry were there to be a bid for BSkyB – made no sense whatever.

Cable’s hostility to Murdoch was scarcely a secret in politics, even if the world at large was unaware of it until he blurted out his “at war” remark to an undercover Telegraph reporter (the aforementioned Holly Watt).  Surely somewhere in all the email exchanges between Michel and various ministers and advisers there would be at the very least a raised eyebrow about the cabinet job granted to Cable?

After all, the BSkyB bid was virtually the only commercial objective being pursued by News.  The scores of meetings, and the hundreds of other communications, between top Tories and News executives were testimony to News’ apparent belief in the value of access, and the Tories’ apparent belief that access did not equate with favours.  The exposure of the scale of these contacts has become – rightly – a source of huge embarrassment to the cabinet.  It is likely that the BSkyB bid was mentioned at virtually every opportunity: but that is simply evidence of how completely News had fooled itself about the willingness and the capacity for the Tories to do favours.

The fact is that previous Tory governments had on balance constrained Murdoch rather than supported him.  Allowing the purchase of the Sunday Times was questionable: but that title constitutes less than 0.5% of UK newspaper circulation (Anthony says Murdoch controls 40% of the press, but the actual figure is 35%, of which The Sun alone constitutes nearly 30%).

Incidentally, it is a cheap shot by Anthony to complain that the Sunday Times did not research the non-existence of WMD in Iraq – a job carried out to good effect by Hans Blix, even if his findings were dismissed by the hawks in the US.  The vast majority of newspapers in the UK and the US (including The Observer) were fooled by the lies of the warmongers: and at least the Sunday Times did not join The New York Times in eagerly treating every fanciful story planted on its reporters by the Bush administration as a front-page scoop.

Some Murdoch critics think that Thatcher should have made it impossible for newspaper proprietors to own more than 20% of any satellite channel – not just of ITV and Channel 5, as the 1996 legislation provided.  That might have deterred the Mirror and the Mail from their (failed) investment in such channels, and blocked Murdoch’s (eventually successful) investment in Sky – or at least, driven their ownership overseas (see below).  Most MPs (rightly, in my view) regarded such a step as inherently anti-competitive, and it did not come close to enactment.

Apart from that, under Tory governments, ministers or regulators successively ousted Murdoch from London Weekend Television, barred him from the official UK satellite venture, legislated to make it impossible for him (and only him) to own more than 20% of ITV or Channel 5, rejected his consortium’s bid for Channel 5, created a list of sporting events to which BSkyB would not be allowed to buy exclusive broadcast rights, and forced BSkyB out of the terrestrial TV pay-venture that became ITV Digital.

Labour governments, in their turn, blocked the BSkyB takeover of Manchester United, and supported regulatory intervention that, first, disallowed BSkyB’s attempt to buy 17.9% of ITV and then imposed price controls on supply of sports channels to the likes of Virgin Media and BT.  The notion that switching the support of his newspapers back and forth has paid commercial dividends for Murdoch (even if that was his intention) derives very little support from the evidence.

Without in any way seeking to exonerate the Conservatives from Anthony’s charge of gross over-indulgence of the desire for access by News executives, I do think he has missed certain key points.

First, the proposed BSkyB transaction cannot sensibly be described as a “reconfiguration of the UK’s entire media space” in the shape of granting News a “massively-enhanced cross-media base in the UK”.  The fact is that the competition authorities already regarded News as effectively controlling BSkyB.  Outright ownership of BSkyB by News would not have changed its pre-existing position, nor given Murdoch that much more influence.  He would simply have swapped his cash pile in the bank for the remaining shares in a company he invented and has always led.

Probably the most immediate effect would have been a rise in the share price of ITV plc, left standing as the largest public company in which investment institutions seeking exposure to the media sector could hold shares, once BSkyB had ceased to be separately listed.

Anthony is simply giving vent to all the discredited arguments about imagined economic and competition effects that had been decisively rejected by the EU.  Perhaps he thinks those evaluations should be repatriated to the UK (as Alan Rusbridger mooted last year, in an eerie echo of UKIP and the Tory right) – where they can be safely disposed of according to political preferences.

‘Fit and proper’ and the future of BSkyB

Of course, the moral argument against allowing Murdoch to invest a further £7 billion in the UK, and making BSkyB the hub of a worldwide satellite TV operation, is understandable.  He a) is a foreigner, b) housed a nest of criminals in his newspaper business, c) failed to admit, let alone investigate, that criminality for years, d) has too much influence over our media already; and e) is responsible for the corruption of US politics through Fox News.  It would therefore be entirely “fit and proper” for Ofcom to conclude that News was itself not “fit and proper” to be the controlling shareholder in BSkyB, and should be forced to sell down or sell out.

Unfortunately, there is an element of wishful thinking in such speculation.  Ofcom has two bites at the “fit and proper” test: first, when an applicant for a broadcast licence is assessed; and secondly, when the holder of a licence commits sufficient misdeeds for that licence to be withdrawn.  Until now, the only instances of such withdrawal were with soft porn channels that repeatedly flouted Ofcom broadcast codes, and then refused to pay fines imposed.

There is almost nothing in BSkyB’s 23-year track record to suggest that its intrinsic right to hold a licence is in question.  Nor is there any suggestion that the years of criminal behaviour at News have had any bearing on the operation of the Sky licences – the two examples of email hacking by Sky News that recently came to light were both vigorously defended as in the public interest.

Moreover, whatever the evidence of past criminality at the newspapers, and past cover-up, the current situation is mostly very different.  Virtually the entire police investigation into alleged corruption of public officials (by journalists and executives at The Sun) has been the product of the huge clean-up operation inside News, which involved handing over to Scotland Yard evidence based on a search of more than 300 million emails.

Cynics would argue that the Management and Standards Committee set up by News was designed to mitigate any possible action in the US under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, where proof of reform can cut off a hostile investigation at its early stages.  Yet in terms of a “fit and proper person” test by Ofcom, it would have to be the current version of News, not past management failures, that would need to be scrutinized.

Even if Ofcom were not persuaded by the MSC and its actions, it is easy to over-estimate the significance of BSkyB actually holding a broadcast licence.  All the value BSkyB generates comes from acquiring broadcast rights, and from selling services (channels, telephony, technology) to consumers: these are handled by its production/acquisition arm and distribution arm respectively.  The actual broadcast channels could easily be held by third parties, performing a simple compliance function: they do not themselves generate economic value.

So the real issue is not whether the Murdochs will be “driven from BSkyB” – a wholly improbable outcome – but whether BSkyB should be driven from the UK.  This is an objective wholly consistent with the moral outrage so many people feel towards the Murdochs.

Of course, it carries a price: were BSkyB to re-locate to, say, Dublin, it would save a lot in tax, and would no longer be included in Ofcom’s UK cross-media ownership calculations.  A renewed bid by News for the whole company (should that ever come about) would not be subject to any further competition reviews in the UK.

From an Irish point of view, BSkyB would represent a major economic boost: thousands of jobs, and at least a billion euros a year of additional revenue.  Conversely, the UK would lose many thousands of jobs (mostly in Scotland – hence Alex Salmond’s anxiety to stay on good terms with News), and at least £1.5 billion a year in VAT and corporation tax.  But surely that would be an acceptable price to pay for reducing News operations in the UK to its declining (and sometimes loss-making) print titles, a top-five book publisher, and a top-three film and video distributor.

It was revulsion at the revelations about Milly Dowler that finally drove the House of Commons collectively to call on News to abandon its BSkyB transaction.  It is hard to believe that any politicians today would be so naive or conniving as to welcome the advances of News executives on anything like the scale exhibited by the Tories before and after the election.  Murdoch has been humbled and the prospective support of his newspapers will not induce any party leader to cross the road, let alone fly to Australia or take a private flight to a yacht in the Mediterranean: never glad, confident morning again.

A reality check

The outrage that Anthony and so many others feel towards the Tories (and Blair before them) is understandable: but the Grand Bargain thesis falls into the same trap as News itself and the Tory leadership fell – the notion that the government could deliver anything worthwhile to News.  The parties, the horse-riding, the dinners, the drinks, the meetings, the texts and the emails were all in vain.

This week at Leveson there will no doubt be yet more embarrassment for Cameron and his colleagues, as Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson give evidence.  They deserve nothing less.

As a variation to Anthony’s theme, I would offer two versions of what Cameron thought he was doing, neither to his credit.  Either he genuinely wanted to help News, and did not realize how constrained by coalition politics and the exigencies of power he would be as prime minister.  Or he actually thought he was so incorruptible that no amount of schmoozing with Rebekah could ever be misinterpreted, either by her, or by the outside world.  The reality check has arrived: time for the reckoning.

Anthony's reply

I tried to reply in the comments but Disqus would not accept my links, so I hope you will forgive my intruding into the article space

Before I respond to your points, David, I want to say three things:

I’m proud that the spirit of openDemocracy has created the space for this exchange about an issue that shapes our politics and democracy and is therefore arguably more important than many traditional party political left/right issues. I also recommend readers to look at the debate between you and Olly Huitson in the comments to his article against Murdoch. Your differences are argued out with respect and serious listening. Most publications are prejudiced about Murdoch or disingenuous about their ‘neutrality’ – on this site readers have to make up their own minds.

In case readers see your critique of attacks on Murdoch as a defence of him or the status quo, they should know that you are fearlessly independent in a way that really annoys people, most famously with your commissioning and broadcasting of Death on the Rock, that left Margaret Thatcher speechless with indignation and you assaulted by the Murdoch attack dogs (see David’s reflection on the episode here).

One of the roles you have taken on is the burden of pointing out to the left that they are making a bogyman of Murdoch while ignoring other threats and media monopolies (like the BBC). It’s an important corrective. I praise it in my long post on The Web Estate in response to Alan Rusbridger’s major essay and again last year in After Murdoch.

Nonetheless, my view of Murdoch was that he had too much power and it must be reduced not enhanced. However,  I also criticised those who, for example like Tim Garton Ash, also welcomed the humbling of Murdoch but saw him as the bully of British politicians - as if they were innocent while he alone was the dark force. The main thrust of my analysis was to show how the grasping ‘political class’ that replaced the old ‘Establishment’ had used and even relied on Murdoch and were as much a part of the problem as him. I think on this we agree.

Murdoch and the Big Lie is an attempt to take this analysis forward with a focus on the Tory leaders of our current government.

On a lot of the technical argument about what the regulations permit or forbid I bow to your expertise. My effort was to sort out political right from wrong in a complex situation. The heart of our disagreement seems to be over whether or not there was indeed an agreement or alliance between Cameron and Osborne on the one hand and the Murdochs on the other with respect to the future of the media in Britain.

I am clear that there was: that the interests of the Murdochs and the values of corporate power were put before the interests of the country by the Tory leaders in return for the Murdochs’ electoral support.

To simplify, you suggest that there was no such agreement or alliance, just an insane “intimacy” - you call it a “madness”. I say they did more than get into bed with each other: they were partners in the sense of a civil marriage without a written contract. You suggest that they were having a four-year crazy affair, even having it off perhaps in a variety of group encounters, but these never became a relationship with intent. In this sense your contempt for the Murdochs and their competence is even greater than mine!

You justify your more relaxed view of what was at stake by pointing out that Cameron and Osborne put Vince Cable, who was known to oppose Murdoch, into a position to rule on the BSkyB bid, nor did they in fact destroy Ofcom’s regulatory powers as promised. But you forget that before this happened it was the Murdochs who proved unable to deliver their side of the understanding - their newspapers failed to ensure that the Conservatives won the election.

It does not follow that because there was a failure there was no agreement. On the contrary, it is only because the compact failed that we can see so clearly how far-reaching it was and speak about it forthrightly. Had it actually succeeded, if BSkyB was now 100 per cent Murdoch controlled, and they were on the ascendant with hacking successfully covered up and no Leveson or recall of the Commons Select Committee, it would have been much harder to identify the collusion or argue against it with any influence.

There are three steps in the argument I set out, I think we broadly agree on two.

First, the Murdochs ran a criminal conspiracy. You say they, “failed to admit, let alone investigate, that criminality for years”. I’d go further. In March 2007, speaking about the jailing of Goodman, their Royal Editor, for hacking, Les Hinton, Murdoch’s right-hand man told the Commons Select Committee that a “rigorous internal investigation” showed Goodman was a rogue reporter acting without the knowledge of his editor Andy Coulson. This was a high-point in a brazen five year cover up implemented by News International after Goodman was charged, so bold it was certainly ordered by Rupert Murdoch with all the hallmarks of his aggression and determination. It was not just that he did not investigate the criminality; he determined the perversion of the course of justice designed to bury it.

He very nearly succeeded; in part because he traded on the compliance and embarrassment of most of the media (not to speak of police and politicians). Bruce Page points out in the new conclusion to The Murdoch Archipelago, “The media industry collectively knew that what Hinton said couldn’t be true – because newspapers don’t work like that – but preferred generally to say and do nothing.” Not least because their hands too were not clean (see for example Brian Cathcart on Operation Motorman we are about to publish). This is what makes the Guardian exposé spearheaded by Nick Davies so outstanding, it had to break through a far wider cover up than that mounted by News International alone - Murdoch wagered on the wider culture of weakness and compliance across official Britain coming to his support, and it did.

Second: where I think we also broadly agree is that, if the whole of what was once Fleet Street knew, then Cameron and Osborne must have know too. It would certainly have been very easy for them to have found out informally, before they hired Coulson in 2007. They were definitely not in ignorance when they took Coulson into No 10 and were schmoozing with team News International thereafter. It is an important point this, in the cunning world of British judgment. It was one thing to have gone along with the wider tolerance of the Murdochs’ criminality, dealing with it when necessary, given their wealth and power. But precisely because of this it was all the more important to keep them at arms length, not recruit one of their key people onto your team while getting madly intimate with those you know to be conspirators in crime. This alone will be a lasting shame on British government.

Where we disagree is whether all this also added up to a grand alliance. When I say they plotted the “reconfiguration of the UK’s entire media space” I didn’t just mean the BSkyB bid but also cutting back the BBC, rolling back regulation, sharing James Murdoch’s contempt for impartiality as a limitation on free speech. Of course this was an extraordinarily ambitious programme, doubtless Cameron and Osborne wanted it to be a ten-year one to secure them a second term – it was a developing partnership with many unknowns.

The fact that the Tories have a history of pushing back Murdoch as you relate, and it is an important and interesting history, shows both how predatory they have always been and also how they need not have been hugged so close - indeed, how important and possible it was to continue to defy their ambitions. Instead, Osborne and Cameron gave the Murdochs the keys to city of democracy in the United Kingdom.

Here, I think, your scepticism gets the better of you. The Rubicon emails are just the paper trail, the tip of an iceberg of communications. For every word written down in any business between ten and a hundred if not a thousand are spoken. We all know that a special adviser like Adam Smith is his masters voice. That is why he is hired. And Michel, James Murdoch’s agent is an experienced PR operative. He wrote JH for Hunt although he had only spoken to Hunt’s adviser, but he had to ensure for himself this was for real or his job would be on the line.

There will be a lot of pedantic denials, that soft evidence does not mean what we know it to mean. I have no problem with legal proof being a high bar. But we mustn’t use this to deceive ourselves. To take the most obvious recent example, I saw Blair saying on TV (I’m still searching for the record of it but I jumped when I heard him) that of course peerages were given to those who made large donations to political parties. What would be wrong if this was “done in the same transaction”!  We all know that he sold peerages. Even some who worked with him have said so. Which is why he became the first Prime Minister to be interviewed under caution, twice. In the end there was not enough hard evidence for a legal charge. This did not mean he did not do it, so far as any intelligent person is concerned.

Similarly, the collusion between Cameron, Osborne and the Murdoch team. You write, “the Grand Bargain thesis falls into the same trap as News itself and the Tory leadership fell – the notion that the government could deliver anything worthwhile to News. The parties, the horse-riding, the dinners, the drinks, the meetings, the texts and the emails were all in vain.” But even if it was inevitable that all of the effort would have been “in vain” and the Tories could never deliver this does not disprove there was not such an agreement for them to do their best. However, I don’t agree failure was inevitable. A Cameron-Osborne led majority Tory government following on after 5 years of Coalition, with its protagonists deeply implicated by their relationship with James Murdoch and his crew, could and would have reconfigured or media space and challenged our democracy.

By a whisker, thanks to the heroic defiance of a few, our democracy has proved resilient enough to confound the grand agreement, after its actual nature became simply undeniable in the wake of the Milly Dowler revelation.

It’s surely vital to build on this success. We need to cheer on the firestorm and re-found our constitution on the popular instincts displayed when the hack of Milly Dowler exposed the whole rotten system of complicity. This means driving out Cameron and Osborne for their active part in the matter; ensuring that Leveson is not asked to be a one-man substitute for an honourable political culture; and insisting on a broad-based public service media that is democratically accountable. This is why the reckoning needs to turn now onto our political masters.

If you enjoyed this exchange and want to learn about more openDemocracy content in a short weekly editor's summary, then please sign up here, paying the amount you choose. Thank-you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData