Dominic Lawson: Who runs the country? Not Murdoch

It's not newspapers nowadays so much as focus groups that political parties use as a proxy for the people as a whole

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Never mind Ed Miliband, Hugh Grant has been the indisputable star of the campaign against the late News of the World and its proprietor Rupert Murdoch. The actor most noted for his comic talents on screen has played a very serious part in this real-life drama, both in his revelatory counter-bugging of an ex-News of the World reporter, and in launching Hacked Off alongside such noted fellow-victims of tabloid sex exposes as Max Mosley and John Prescott.

Now, for the current edition of the American magazine Newsweek, Grant has ratcheted up the rhetoric. In an interview conducted just before Rebekah Brooks resigned as Chief Executive of News International, he declares that "She was best chums with the Prime Minister – this Prime Minister, the previous Prime Minister – and was virtually running the country."

This is spectacularly compelling nonsense – and not just because it would come as news to Gordon Brown that he had been "best chums" with Ms Brooks. Most of all it is nonsense in elevating to a new level the fashionable view that Rupert Murdoch's erstwhile henchwoman was some kind of unelected dictator ordering the politicians what to do (or "running the country", as Grant would have it).

This is a country ruled by laws, not people (thank goodness); and the only measure that Ms Brooks seemed able to bring into being was that described as "Sarah's Law": following the abduction and murder of a girl called Sarah Payne by a convicted sex offender in 2000, the News of the World campaigned ceaselessly to promote a law which would allow parents to check if a person in their neighbourhood had a history of sex offences against children.

Eventually, after many years of the News of the World's demanding such disclosure, the Government introduced a pilot scheme in four police areas – and only now is it being rolled out across the country. The truth, however, is that it was not so much the News of the World's campaigning that had pushed government into obeisance to the power of what was then Rupert Murdoch's best-selling newspaper, but the fact that there was an underlying popular demand for some such measure – which the red-top newspaper had shrewdly exploited for its own commercial purposes.

Generally this is how the editors of Rupert Murdoch's mass-market titles have operated – in skilfully riding the prevailing mood of the public. That is why the Sun has oscillated between supporting the Conservatives, then Labour and then the Tories again. It was not the Sun "wot won it" for the Conservatives in 1992 (as the newspaper vaingloriously claimed after John Major's victory): it was its readers, most of whose increasingly visceral distrust of the Labour leader Neil Kinnock had been the vital factor quite independent of Murdoch's own strong opinions on the matter.

It is in this sense that the Sun is quite different from its main rival, the Mirror. The other daily red-top is slavishly loyal to the Labour Party, sometimes to the point of self-satire. Indeed, since the days of Thatcherite triumphalism there has been no right-of-centre paper which has given the Tories the uncritical support that the Mirror still offers Labour.

For example, when I was editor of the Sunday Telegraph, I was free to run – and did run – damaging pieces about the Conservative Party leadership. Yet when I did so, I would always get a basket-load of letters from furious Conservative party supporters, telling me that they would end their subscription to the Sunday Telegraph – and no editor should treat his readers with contempt, especially in an era when sales are in any case falling.

As for influence over the politicians, I never truly felt I had much, if any. Perhaps it was because I was editing a paper which, in the end, would always "vote Tory" at elections – just as the Mirror's influence is so slight because its loyalty to the "people's party" is a given. If Murdoch had a greater power with politicians it was because his papers – the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times, and the News of the World – had more politically heterogeneous readerships. For the politicians they were akin to marginal constituencies, which, as we know, are always fought for much more intensively than those which are seen to be safe seats for one party or another.

Yet as John Prescott, the former Labour Deputy Prime Minister, himself recently pointed out, Murdoch's ability to move public opinion was never properly tested, because he had never backed a party at an election which was not ahead in the opinion polls in the first place. This was described by one Australian media commentator as "the heart of Murdoch's business model. Not actually manipulating public opinion, but convincing an insecure political class that it could. This influence over the political class was not merely a delusion, but the result of the detachment of the political parties from the electorate that meant that the media was the only way they could relate to it."

Even this might be to exaggerate Murdoch's hold. It is not newspapers nowadays so much as focus groups that political parties use as a proxy for the people as a whole. A modern political leader will readily do things which annoy newspapers (indeed as newspapers tend to be in a perpetual state of indignation, it is very difficult to avoid); but he will rapidly drop a policy if it plays appallingly with the focus groups.

There is, admittedly, one political issue on which Rupert Murdoch has been consistent, and on which his editors are at all times aware that they should not move out of line. That issue is Europe. Like many brought up in Australia, Murdoch was appalled by the way that Britain, in joining the European Community, put up tariff barriers against countries such as Australia and New Zealand, with which we previously had free trade arrangements. According to those who know him, Murdoch's ferocious opposition to the idea of Britain's joining the euro is an echo of that earlier seismic rift.

Yet here, too, Murdoch was echoing British public opinion. After this country's humiliating exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, it was never remotely likely that a referendum on giving up the pound for the euro could be won by its advocates. Indeed, if anything, the British public is more Eurosceptic, as a whole, than any of the main three political parties. Most recent polls show a clear popular majority in favour of complete withdrawal from the EU; yet this has never been advocated even by the most Eurosceptic of Murdoch's newspapers.

Funnily enough, it is the strongest advocates of British membership of the euro (admittedly rather reticent of late) who have tended to put up the most straightforwardly nationalistic objection to Murdoch's ownership of chunks of the British media. He is a foreigner, they say, and therefore should not have any such potential influence.

Yet in buying this excellent newspaper, you are purchasing an organ of opinion which is now the property of Evgeny Lebedev. Indeed, just as The Independent might no longer be available were it not for the investment of its new Anglo-Russian owner, so it is unlikely that the perennially loss-making Times would still be in business, were it not for Rupert Murdoch – as its employees might well discover, if the mogul is forced to reduce his British empire.



d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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