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					The Australian Financial Review
www.afr.com l Friday 15 July 2011                                                                                                                                             Re view                     5



A cosy pact falls apart
Lance Price says the deal between 
Murdoch and politicians is finished




T
          he sight of Rupert              thinks you can be a big, bad bastard                                                                                           It’s another irony that the two
          Murdoch being pursued           too”. If you succeeded in that, said                                                                                        things he wanted most from
          around London by an             Keating, “you can do deals with                                                                                             Cameron were a lighter touch to
          aggressive media pack           him, without ever saying a deal is                                                                                          media regulation and a clear run for
          demanding answers is rich       done”.                                                                                                                      his proposed takeover of the rest of
with irony. Tight-lipped and                 And that’s what happened. Blair                                                                                          the BSkyB satellite network. In both
uncomfortable, he has struggled to        and his team returned to Britain                                                                                            cases, thanks to the outrageous
manage more than a gruff “no              convinced that if they left Murdoch                                                                                         behaviour of his own journalists,
comment” as he watched his power          free to pursue his business interests                                                                                       exactly the opposite has happened.
ebb away.                                 in Britain without interference then                                                                                           It is not just Murdoch’s fortunes
   Bringing down the over-mighty          he would swing his best-selling titles                                                                                      that have been transformed in the
and the arrogant is one of the            behind Blair.                                                                                                               past week. The unhealthy
trademarks of Murdoch-style                  In 1997 Blair did become prime                                                                                           relationship between politicians and
journalism. The list of ministerial       minister. And while he would have                                                                                           the media will never be the same
careers ruined and the reputations        won – and won big – with or                                                                                                 again. Cameron has already said
of public figures trashed is a long       without Murdoch’s help, he was                                                                                              there should be no more secret
one. This week he has discovered          grateful to the tycoon nonetheless.                                                                                         meetings. Late in the day he has
just how it feels to be on the            At that point Rupert Murdoch was                                                                                            spoken out in favour of the kind of
receiving end.                            at the very peak of his power and                                                                                           transparency that some of us have
   Murdoch has never been a               influence.                                                                                                                  been demanding for a long time.
popular figure in Britain, but only a        Today he is at his lowest ebb. He                                                                                           In the short term editors and
very vocal minority have cared            thought he could have prime                                                                                                 proprietors, not just in Britain but
enough to loathe him. His papers          ministers dancing to his tune, no                                                                                           around the world, will be chastened
certainly have been popular. The          matter what party they came from.                                                                                           by what has happened. And in the
tabloid Sun and News of the W     orld    Blair wasn’t the first and nor was he                                                                                       longer term it is for them to restore
have outsold their rivals for decades.    the last. Margaret Thatcher had                                                                                             the reputation of their profession.
Now the “News of the Screws” as it        skirted round the rules to allow him                                                                                        State regulation is not the answer. If
became known has gone and                 to purchase The Times and The                                                                                               those in power were to use the
The Sun is damaged goods as well.         Sunday Times. She, too, had been                                                                                            public’s outrage to shackle the press
   Murdoch himself is widely seen to      rewarded with editorial support.                                                                                            and make it harder for journalists to
embody the sins of his newspapers            Prime Minister David Cameron,                                                                                            hold governments to account, that
and he is not enjoying the                who this week announced a judicial                                                                                          would serve only to make a bad
experience.                               inquiry into the abuses at News                                                                                             situation worse.
   To appreciate the extent of his fall   International, started his                                                                                                     Editors have to learn that there is
from grace we should remember how         premiership with every sign of                                                                                              a high price to be paid for illegality
much clout this man – Australian          cosying up to Murdoch in the same                                                                                           and unethical behaviour. Most will
born, now a citizen of the United         time-honoured fashion. He changed                                                                                           have received that message by now,
States – has had in Britain.              his tune only very recently when                                                                                            although it may take a tougher
   A decade ago I worked inside           public opinion, outraged by what                                                                                            regulatory regime to make sure they
10 Downing Street for the recently-       had been going on at the News of                                                                                            don’t forget. Higher fines for
elected Prime Minister Tony Blair.        the W orld, forced his hand.                                                                                                breaking the agreed codes of
After what I saw and heard                   Shortly after he took office,                                                                                            conduct will be a start.
I described Rupert Murdoch as             Cameron was asked about my own                   Rupert Murdoch may back winners, but Lance Price argues that                  Nobody wants a chastened or
being like “the 24th member of the        comments on Murdoch’s power. “I                  he does not have the power to create them.        Photo: REUTERS           frightened media, but we do deserve
cabinet”. It seemed to me his views       don’t particularly notice the                                                                                               a more responsible one. And greater
carried more weight with Blair than       presence of a 24th person round the       special favours to Murdoch’s             prime minister if Murdoch hadn’t         transparency is key to that.
those of most of the ministers who        cabinet table,” he said. It was a         journalists and wanted his own           turned against him.                      Newspapers love to name and shame
sat around the cabinet table.             misleading answer. His then               press operation to be much more             I think he’s wrong. Brown would       but they don’t like it when they are
   Before joining Blair’s staff I had     communications director, Andy             straightforward. This week he told       have lost anyway, just as Blair would    on the receiving end. The internet is
been a journalist myself for many         Coulson, was a former editor of the       the House of Commons that my             have won in 1997. The media              already proving useful in exposing
years, so I wasn’t naive. I knew all      News of the W   orld who had resigned     book revealing the extent of             generally, and Murdoch in                journalistic as well as political
prime ministers had their favourites      from that job over earlier phone          Murdoch’s influence had been one         particular, don’t have the power so      malpractice.
in the media. People in power always      hacking allegations. Moreover,            of the most depressing he’d ever         many politicians think they do.             The American commentator
do. But Murdoch and his editors           Rebekah Wade, chief executive of          read.                                    They don’t change the weather but        H L Mencken famously said the
were more than just favourites at         News International, was a personal           But the truth is that as leader of    they can see which way the wind is       relationship between a journalist
court. If anything, it was the elected    friend of Cameron’s.                      the opposition he had lost his nerve.    blowing. Murdoch made a hard-            and a politician should be like that
Prime Minister who seemed to be                                                     The reason he has been on the back       headed decision in his own               between a dog and a lamppost. He
paying court to him.                                                                foot politically all this week is that   commercial interests. He backs           didn’t say which was supposed to be
   Soon after starting work behind          “He thought he could                    he failed to distance himself from       winners, he doesn’t create them.         which. But defenders of press
the famous black door I was told by                                                 Murdoch when he should have done            Men like Tony Blair, Gordon           freedom need not be alarmed.
somebody in the know that “we’ve
                                            have prime ministers                    and he knows it.                         Brown and David Cameron have             Journalists should be free to get on
promised News International we              dancing to his tune”                       When he own ratings failed to         made him appear more powerful            with their jobs, as long as they do it
won’t make any changes to our                                                       take off as he’d hoped, he was           than he really is. Why? Because they     within the bounds of responsibility.
Europe policy without talking to                                                    persuaded that he needed News            feared he might understand public        And prime ministers should be free
them”. Had that been known                  The morning after Cameron               International’s support after all.       opinion better than they did or that     to get on with what they were elected
publicly we would have been accused       became Prime Minister, Rupert             He didn’t have to fly all the way to     he might be able to shift it more        to do without feeling beholden to
of handing something close to a veto      Murdoch himself was seen slipping         Queensland to let it be known he         easily than he really could. As they     any proprietor, however extensive
over a key aspect of government           out the back door of Downing              was ready to deal. There was no          couldn’t be certain how much             his media empire.
policy to an unelected foreigner.         Street. The press office refused to       paper trail. The forthcoming inquiry     difference he could make to their           Transparency is no threat to
   It was part of a deal done off the     say what his visit had been about. It     won’t uncover any emails. There          fortunes, they didn’t dare disbelieve    either profession. After all, the
coast of Queensland as long ago           was hard to escape the conclusion         weren’t even any mobile phone            in his power just in case it was true.   relationship between a dog and a
as 1995. Blair, then leader of the        that for News International it was        messages for somebody else to hack          The relationship was unhealthy        lamp post is the same whether the
opposition, had flown all the way to      business as usual.                        into. That’s not how it’s done.          because it was fundamentally             lamp is lit or not.
Hamilton Island to address                  I may be a Labour man myself,              Signals were sent out and discreet    undemocratic. Murdoch, elected by
executives of Murdoch’s News              but this isn’t a party political issue.   approaches made. As a consequence        nobody, didn’t have to give away         Lance Price is a former media adviser
Corporation parent company.               In fact I believe Cameron’s own           the News International titles swung      anything, but elected governments        at 10 Downing Street and author of
Before he got there Blair received        instinct was to do things differently.    dramatically behind the Tories two       did make concessions. They were          Where Power Lies, Prime Ministers v the
some telling advice from Paul             He’d seen the way the governments         years ago. All the most supportive       rarely about matters of high policy.     Media, Simon & Schuster, 2009, and
Keating, then in power himself.           of both Tony Blair and Gordon             headlines during the last election       The only issue Murdoch cares             The Spin Doctor’s Diary, Hodder and
Murdoch, he said, was “a big, bad         Brown kow-towed to News                   campaign were in Murdoch-owned           enough about to flex his muscles         Stoughton, 2005.
bastard and the only way you can          International and he didn’t like it.      papers. Gordon Brown is convinced        over is Europe. He is a businessman,
deal with him is to make sure he          He’d criticised the spin and the          to this day that he would still be       first, second and last.                  www.lanceprice.co.uk

				
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