The story that unfolded last week at the Royal Courts of Justice has roots that stretch back more than three decades.
Behind the highly rehearsed faux candour of Murdoch senior, and the bland evasions of his son, lies a story in which democracy – not just in the UK, but in the US, Australia and elsewhere – has been consistently and wilfully undermined in pursuit not simply of profit but, far more corrosively, of power.
For the past 30 years, the Murdoch empire has sought to undermine and destabilise elected governments, and independent regulators, in pursuit of a political agenda that, while hiding behind a smokescreen of free market orthodoxy, is in the end nothing less than a sophisticated attempt to optimise the power and influence of News Corporation and its populist, rightwing agenda.
That’s to say low (or better still, no) corporate taxes, minimal state regulation and the creation of an aura of “exceptionalism” sufficient to convince and recruit many of the most senior politicians in the western world to either turn a blind eye or actively help the company to achieve its commercial objectives.
The strategy is well-honed and, as Murdoch himself once admitted, brutally simple. “You tell the bloody politicians what they want to hear and once the deal is done don’t worry about it,” ran one quote in Thomas Kiernan’s biography, Citizen Murdoch. “They’re not going to chase after you later if they suddenly decide what you said wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Otherwise, they’re made to look bad and they can’t abide that. So they just stick their heads up their asses and wait for the blow to pass.”
The prime minister, Jeremy Hunt and other cabinet ministers were simply the latest in a long line, reaching back over three decades, to find themselves seduced by the possibility of Murdoch’s support, only to discover their fair-weather friend has a habit of turning nasty when things fail to go his way.
Indeed, as I once (unsuccessfully) tried to explain to Jeremy Hunt, vast quantities of political capital can be spent clearing up the unintended consequences of what might, at the time, have appeared politically expedient decisions.
It is now clear that the extent of the secretary of state’s prior dealings with the Murdoch empire, in opposition and then in government, were such as to make it totally inappropriate for him to have been handed political responsibility for oversight of News Corporation’s bid for the whole ofBSkyB.
He now finds himself branded as having behaved, not impartially, but more like a dodgy ref who not only demonstrates bias on the pitch, but ducks into the dressing room at half-time to offer advice.
To any politician with a serious interest in pursuing a “quasi-judicial” approach based on carefully assembled evidence, it ought to have been clear from the outset that the level of unregulated market and financial power that would accrue to News Corporation as a result of this transaction was likely to ensure the eventual emasculation of “free to air” public service broadcasting as we’ve known it.
It should have been clear that the BBC and Channel 4 would in a relatively short time have become little more than publicly funded research-and-development operations for subscription services, in danger of following the trajectory towards irrelevance that’s been the fate of the public broadcasting system in the US.
Almost exactly 10 years ago, I had the privilege of chairing a joint committee (Lords and Commons) that sought to unhook any future secretary of state from the decision-making nightmare into which Mr Hunt has plunged himself. Clearly we failed. As he described it in Parliament last week: “This is a problem that has bedevilled politics for a very long time… they are very, very difficult issues.”
On 6 July 2009, the then leader of the opposition, David Cameron, announced that, should he become prime minister, he would remove Ofcom’s policy-making powers and cut back the communications regulator “by a huge amount”. He went on to say that “the scope of their influence raises important questions for our democracy and our politics – these are organisations that feel no pressure to answer for what happens – in a way that is completely unaccountable”.
They must have been cheering him to the echo in Wapping and two months later the Sun came out, all guns blazing, for the Conservative party. Corporate objectives and political expediency had found themselves in perfect alignment. Rereading that “Bonfire of the Quangos” speech in the light of last week’s events, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or to cry!
I’ve devoted the past 30 years of my life to issues of media plurality and the challenge of preserving the widest possible spectrum in the provision of both information and entertainment. Many will argue, with some justification, that the shotgun marriage that became BSkyB brought a significant degree of plurality and diversity to broadcast television, albeit at a cost few would have believed possible 25 years ago.
However, a successful media environment does not happen by accident and, when it does occur, it can and to my mind absolutely should be supported by thoughtful and sensitive regulation. What is certain is that plurality and diversity are not, and never can be, a natural “byproduct” of unregulated market forces.
I believe it’s the responsibility of public policy to ensure the independence and diversity of opinion that have been a unique hallmark of our national culture, a quality much envied in other parts of the world. I’ve also attempted to be strictly non-partisan in my commitment to these issues. At different times, this has led to battles with most of the relevant unions and trade bodies, all of the broadcasters, even my own party.
In every case, what I was opposing was the concentration of power – be it from the market or elsewhere. The impact of new communication technologies has, if anything, made this more rather than less challenging. I would argue that competition law, in a fast-moving sector such as the media, must be able to take account of, and make judgments based on, “highly probable” as well as “actual” market dominance.
In the House of Lords and elsewhere, I have repeatedly called for a comprehensive cross-media impact study – so far to no avail. At the end of his session with Lord Justice Leveson, Rupert Murdoch described the digital landscape, which we have now entered, as one in which tablets and GPS-enabled smartphones are displacing newsprint. The potential of this technology to engender even greater competitive diversity in an intelligently regulated democracy ought to be very welcome. It should result in a broadening of the lens through which we see the world, not a narrowing of it.
But that requires a clear regulatory framework that encourages, in fact enables, media plurality to flourish. We cannot, for example, legislate for good journalism, but we can legislate for the conditions under which the very best journalism is nurtured and sustained. We can create frameworks in which each new technology becomes a spur for diversity, not an instrument of its erosion.
My passion was always based on a conviction that “information” and its related industries are unlike any other, in that they have an enormous influence on the broadest range of opinions and behaviour – in fact on the very health of society. As the distinguished historian Lord Hennessy put it: “This debate is about nothing less than the nature of 21st-century sovereignty.”
Lord Puttnam is a Labour peer and was chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee for the 2003 Communications Act