Politicians should just say no to our self-important media proprietors

If ministers have a formal duty towards the 'Telegraph', they have an informal one towards Murdoch: to tell him to take a running leap
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The Independent Online

For an American, he has exerted huge, many would say the dominant, influence on British politics in the past year. His visit to London is attracting rapt attention, some of it very hostile. Opponents of Tony Blair complain repeatedly that the Prime Minister, having built a close relationship with him since his first opportunity to do so, is far too much in his thrall. He and his closest lieutenants are deeply suspicious, to put it mildly, of "old Europe", all the more so since the fracture in the Western alliance over the Iraq war. He continues to heap praise on the British Prime Minister for his steadfast support for the US in that conflict. Whatever differences Blair has with him in their frequent meetings, he keeps private, the better to retain what influence he can exert over him.

Yes, Rupert Murdoch has been in town again, giving a memorable television interview in which he confessed to the BBC's business editor, Jeff Randall, that he was "torn" on whether he and his papers would support Tony Blair or Michael Howard in the next general election.

We'll come back to Murdoch's interview in a moment. But what makes it even more interesting is the wholly unconnected crisis at Hollinger Inc, which owns the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and from which Lord Black, Murdoch's fellow mogul and a man with some of the same instincts on issues of the day, yesterday stepped down as chief executive in a row over multi-million pound fees paid to him and other executives. For one knock-on effect of the crisis is that Black's 18-year-long, and politically hugely influential, control of the steadfastly pro-Conservative Telegraph group appears to have drawn to a close.

This could prove in the long run to be almost as big a moment for politics as it is for journalism. Since the departure in 1995 of Max Hastings, the Telegraph has used its very substantial influence in the Conservative Party to help steer it with marked success to the right on Europe, on relations with the US and on many domestic issues. It certainly did its best to keep Ken Clarke - who was both pro-European and as it would later turn out, opposed to the war in Iraq - out of the Tory leadership in 2001.

This was as congenial, of course, to Charles Moore, the editor whom Black appointed to succeed Hastings, as it was to his proprietor. But with Murdoch and Paul Dacre, editor of Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail, Black has been one of the three most powerful - and unelected - forces at the sceptical end of a European debate, which has had a political influence extending well beyond the issue of Europe itself. Although generous in his memoirs about Black, Hastings remarks that "the difficulties of matching my own one-nation Toryism with the convictions of [the] proprietor were, ultimately, insuperable".

Because the Telegraph is hardly likely to abandon its allegiance to the Conservative Party, and because Michael Howard - essentially a man of the Tory right - has just been anointed its leader, it may be some time, if at all, before the Black legacy is extinguished. But the possibility that the Telegraph may in time abandon a brand of Conservatism which has so far flopped with the electorate can't be ruled out. All that depends on who takes it over. And, oddly, the Labour government may yet have a role here. In deciding on, and if necessary overruling, Competition Commission recommendations on newspaper take-overs, the Trade and Industry Secretary - currently Patricia Hewitt - can apply a public interest criterion. This is quite narrowly drawn and doesn't cover content. Rightly, she can't block a merger because the new owners are anti-Labour, anti-European, or - say - in favour of hanging. But the provisions of the Enterprise Act and the Communications Act entitle the minister and the competition authorities to question whether a merger goes too far in undermining "plurality" in the market.

So even if, say, the owners of the Mail and the Express were able to satisfy the Commission that their present titles operate in different segments of the market (itself a matter of doubt), she could - and undoubtedly should - still rule that it would mean too many newspapers being owned by too few proprietors. Maybe some proprietor from outside this cosy circle would out-Black Black. But maybe he would be of a quite different hue altogether. But if ministers have an (albeit very limited) formal duty in relation to the Telegraph, they have a much greater informal one in relation to Murdoch. Which is to tell him to take a running jump.

For a start the importance of his remarks can be exaggerated. The value ascribed by some in the party to his papers' - and in particular The Sun's - role in losing the 1992 election for Labour and winning it for them in 1997 - is almost mythical. Certainly, the switch of The Sun's allegiance in March 1997 - the day after John Major called the election - was a brilliant Labour "story". But Murdoch can read opinion polls as well as anyone. He backs winners; and his paper followed his readers to Labour, not the other way round. Probably deep down he would prefer Howard, but he is unlikely to give the new Tory leader his backing if he thinks Blair is cruising to a third election victory.

What's more depressing is the total absence of challenge from top politicians to his portentous remarks on Newsnight. You can almost hear him saying: "The electorate, c'est moi." You can't blame Murdoch himself for this. What possible traction can he exact on gullible politicians of either party if he declares his hand now? The real fault lies with the politicians who sign up to the hyperbole - insulting to Sun readers, who are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves - that it's The Sun wot wins elections. This isn't meant to suggest that The Sun isn't very influential. Of course it is, not least in helping to shape by virtue of sheer persistence, attitudes to Europe. But this too is a matter of cowardice by the elected in the face of the unelected.

In an unnoticed section of a lecture in Oxford last week, Peter Mandelson referred with sympathy to the argument that the Blair government should have held an enabling euro-referendum early in its first parliament. This is an implicit acknowledgement - the first from inside the Blair circle - that such a tactic might have made it much easier to join now. One reason that it didn't happen, of course, was that the prohibitive exchange rates then would have been used by opponents in the campaign. But another was the vain belief that sooner or later Murdoch would come round. And that he above all called the tune.

But this isn't really about Europe. It's about politicians standing up for themselves instead of subscribing to the myth of unchallengeable media power. Just as Stanley Baldwin attacked Beaverbrook and Northcliffe in the Thirties for wielding power without responsibility, "the prerogative of the harlot through the ages", so, sooner or later, some modern politician will electrify the voters with a Stanley Baldwin moment by reminding them of the limits to the abuse of proprietorial power.