Cameron is still in hock to the Murdochs

Submitted by Matthew on 9 May, 2012 - 11:17

It’s no surprise that the Tories are taking most of the political heat from the revelations surrounding News International.

The fact that ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson was Cameron’s adviser and the constant reminders that Rebekah Brooks and Elizabeth Murdoch are neighbours and close social friends of the Camerons (in the Chipping Norton set) all fix the Tory-Murdoch mutual backscratching link in the public mind.

But Cameron will be frustrated that the other parties are not taking their share of the blame. After all New Labour courted Murdoch if anything more shamelessly. In fact the historic and more natural tendency of News International to support the Tories required Labour, if they wanted to win tabloid support, to be more self-abasing and craven about it.

To some extent the other main parties have escaped blame by luck. Miliband is a new leader who can put some distance between himself and his predecessors. Clegg took over a party that never had much chance of winning the support of NI papers. The Lib Dems are also protected by the Daily Telegraph’s secret taping of Business Secretary, Vince Cable, saying he would do what he could to prevent Murdoch taking over BSkyB. The tape lost Cable his job, but it also saved his reputation.

Labour’s immunity from the Leveson fallout is also down to some decision-making. As soon as the phone-hacking scandal broke Miliband publicly condemned it and made it clear he would he was breaking from past Labour dalliances with News International. Applauded as brave at the time, this shift had actually been made easier by Gordon Brown’s public fallout with the corporation.

What is less obvious is why the Tory leadership has made no clear attempt to distance themselves decisively from Murdoch and the continuing political damage which has followed. This is, after all, a party renowned for its ruthlessness, summed up in the brutal dispatch of three-time election-winning Thatcher from the leadership in 1990 and captured dramatically in the 1980s TV drama House of Cards. Whatever prevents Cameron from delivering the final political kick to the News International corporation in Britain, it isn’t morality or loyalty.

Ye they are clearly not ready to break the umbilical cord. The refusal of Tory MPs on the Culture and Media Select Committee to agree on a verdict that Murdoch was not a fit and proper person to run a major media outlet is the latest evidence of that. Whatever the procedural argument put by Louise Mensch (that the judgement was outside the Committee’s remit) the impression conveyed is that the Tories remain in hock to and in the service of Murdoch. In the aftermath of that report Cameron and other cabinet members were under pressure to state whether they thought Murdoch was a fit person to run a major British paper. They studiously refused.

The News of the World may have closed and the BSkyB deal collapsed, but News International still exists and owns the Sun, the biggest selling daily and most widely-read paper in Britain, together with the influential Times and Sunday Times. The Tories have their support and don’t want to lose it. Neither do they want to risk being on the wrong end of future exposures, scandals or policy parodies as they seek re-election in 2015. Perhaps they hope for some poison to be thrown in Labour’s direction when the dust settles and the Sun, in particular, re-establishes itself.

Not only is News International not finished, neither is the Leveson Inquiry. Shortly after we go to press both Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks are due to appear before the Inquiry. Brooks has promised to show Leveson dozens of text messages and emails between herself and Cameron from the time when the crisis first broke.

Whatever Coulson says on his appearance, days of media discussion of the links between News International and the Tories will follow. Both Brooks and Coulson know where the bodies are buried. Fearing that they will reveal too much, Cameron has asked Leveson to let ministers see their written evidence in advance.

The Tory dilemma was neatly summed up by Nick Cohen in last week’s Observer: “We are in the absurd position where the Conservatives dare not stop fawning over Murdoch now for fear that he will reveal how they fawned over him in the past”.

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