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
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