Stephen Glover on The Press

When the media play politics they lose even a veneer of impartiality
Click to follow

Many people say David Davis has made a terrible mistake in resigning his seat to take on the Government over extending pre-charge detention to 42 days. However noble the cause, they declare, he has put himself before the interests of the party, and engaged in an unnecessary battle that could damage the Tories and revive a stricken Gordon Brown.

Maybe they are right. We will see. But it is possible that some other people are about to make a mistake that could surpass Mr Davis's. I am thinking of Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun, Rebekah Wade, its editor, and Kelvin MacKenzie, a columnist for the paper as well as a former editor, who is thinking of opposing Mr Davis in the by-election at Haltemprice and Howden.

Mr MacKenzie may still have second thoughts, and has said he will not stand if Labour puts up a candidate. But he claims that he has the support of Mr Murdoch and Ms Wade, and that they are jointly raising the banner of democracy. If they have any sense they will promptly lower it, and go back to what they are best at doing, and have spent their time on this earth doing – producing newspapers.

In democracies, governments do not own newspapers, though they try to manipulate them, and sometimes succeed. For their part, newspapers and their proprietors do not own governments, though they may also try, and Mr Murdoch has got closer than most to succeeding. It is no idle convention that the executive should keep out of the media, and the media out of the executive, but the essence of our democratic system. In one-party states, by contrast, government and press are one and the same.

If Labour does not stand, Mr Murdoch will, through the auspices of Mr MacKenzie, be acting as its substitute. And this will rightly open the press tycoon to the charge that he has crossed the normally well-observed line between trying to influence political events, which is the proper role of the press, and actually shaping them. If Mr MacKenzie should win – admittedly, a highly unlikely prospect, but obviously theoretically possible – he would become not so much the representative of the people of Haltemprice and Howden as of a billionaire media mogul living in America.

Of course, he would be most unlikely to win. The Sun claims 10 million readers – about one-quarter of the electorate. In fact, many Sun readers would probably vote against Mr MacKenzie, for the same reason that I would vote against an Independent newspaper candidate if one stood in my constituency: the Fourth Estate should not involve itself in politics. Other readers, and the many who don't take newspapers, would probably gang up against Mr MacKenzie for the same reason, or out of sheer dislike of The Sun and its values. Though it is not my first concern, the paper's reputation is bound to suffer should Mr MacKenzie enter the ring.

If Mr Davis's decision to resign and stand again in his own constituency on a single issue is without precedent, Mr MacKenzie's possible involvement does have historical parallels. In February 1930, Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, formed the United Empire Party to promote his policy of free trade within the British Empire. He was supported by his close friend Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail. Both men despised the Tory leader, Stanley Baldwin. In the event, Beaverbrook's candidate went down to a heavy defeat in a by-election. This was the occasion of Baldwin's famous speech, written by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, about proprietors "aiming at power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot down the ages".

The times are different, and Mr Murdoch's aims are more modest than Beaverbrook's, but he, too, may be about to end up with egg all over his face.