Steve Richards: Let's not forget who is really in the dock at Leveson

The question is not why these people worshipped at the altar, but how the altar became so powerful

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This week's events at the Leveson Inquiry are misleading. Prime Ministers, Chancellors, Deputy Prime Ministers have been in the dock, or at least have appeared to be so. Headlines rage about the conduct of Brown, Osborne and co. They will continue to do so with the current Prime Minister clearing his diary for today's lengthy interrogation.

How easy it is to forget that the Inquiry is about the conduct of the press, and was triggered by the activities of one dominant media empire in particular. Puny elected politicians prayed at the mighty altar, fearing the consequences if they failed to do so. Often accused of arrogance, they are guilty only to the extent of being pathetically weak.

With different degrees of subtlety, the political leaders avoided candour about the intensity of their worship and the degree to which they ached for the endorsement of certain newspapers. Gordon Brown was being comically disingenuous in claiming that he was not especially interested in the media and had assumed at the beginning of his premiership that he would not get the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch's Sun and Times. Both the general and specific assertions are incredible.

Even as a prime minister with a passionate and laudable interest in detail, Brown was an avid reader of the press. One of his advisers told me that Brown read the papers at five in the morning, which meant he was miserable by half past five. The adviser attempted to comfort him by suggesting that he was probably the only person in the country who read all the papers. It was no comfort.

As for The Sun and The Times, Brown would have attended pyjama parties every night of the week if it had got him the endorsement of Murdoch's newspapers. He gave a lot of thought to how to get such a backing when he became prime minister. One of the reasons Ed Balls urged Brown to call an early election in 2007 was that he sensed, rightly, that The Times was moving rightwards. The Sun was more complicated, being variably warm towards Brown and Tony Blair but still arguing for Thatcherite policies in general. The Sun's endorsement of Labour in 2005 was a classic, arguing that it was only doing so because of Blair's foreign policy in general and the war in Iraq in particular.

Brown should have admitted his round-the-clock interest in the media; it would have reinforced his argument about the recklessness of some newspapers. He had cause to be obsessed. More to the point, he was not alone. One of Murdoch's senior intermediaries described to me his discussions with Blair over whether the Labour government would offer a referendum on the proposed EU constitution as being like a "negotiation". The senior intermediary made clear to Blair that The Sun would not endorse Labour unless the referendum was offered. Blair told me in January 2005 that he knew The Sun would be backing Labour, five months before the election took place. I assume his confidence was based on the "negotiation". Blair once told me that dealing with the media was like sharing a flat with a demented tenant.

John Major admitted to the Inquiry that he also got worked up by his media coverage, reading daily reports about him that he knew were not true. Brown should take note. Once Major admitted with self- deprecating humour to his hyper-sensitivity, his evidence had more potency and contained a rare but extraordinary revelation. Apparently, Murdoch warned that unless he changed his policy towards Europe, Major would lose the support of his newspapers.

Major was apologetic for his thin skin. He had no need to be. Thin skins are common. The defence of the current Conservative leadership is that some newspapers were so powerful that they wanted them on side. George Osborne emerged unscathed from his session because he had no great case to answer, accepting that he instigated the appointment of Andy Coulson in the hope of getting more support in the media. There is no crime in wanting such support and it would be perverse not to seek it. Ed Miliband was careful to state during his visit to the Inquiry that he would not return to the 1980s when contact with the Murdoch titles was formally barred (a ban that the youthful Blair ignored).

Osborne's defence in relation to BSkyB confirmed that he, too, was a media obsessive. He described the bid as a political problem because some of the Conservative-supporting newspapers were opposed. This was only partially credible as the mountain of texts and emails shows unequivocal or implicit ministerial support for the bid. Presumably, a calculation was made that the Telegraph and the Mail would continue to endorse them whereas the more promiscuous Murdoch empire might not do so. Such calculations are unsurprising.

What these disparate figures have in common is a fear of some newspapers and a yearning to have their approval. As Major said, on a human level it is distressing to read poisonous personal attacks. Politically more significant, newspapers still have the power to influence the political mood. Nearly all the political witnesses noted the impact of newspapers on broadcasters and vice versa. As someone who has worked in both, I am sure they are right, and the dynamic still applies in the era of the internet.

While supposedly mighty elected figures fretted neurotically, the political judgements of Murdoch and co were often spectacularly naive. Murdoch claimed that he opposed Labour in 1992 because of Clause 4 of its constitution, even though Harold Wilson had declared it outdated and meaningless in the 1960s. Rebekah Brooks said that The Sun ditched Labour in the run-up to the 2010 election because of Brown's attitude towards "our boys" in Afghanistan. But Brown was assiduous in his approach to that conflict, not least because he wanted to assure Murdoch's newspapers that he could be as robust in relation to defence policy as was his predecessor.

I suppose all these politicians should apologise for getting too close to News International, as Cameron will in some form today. He has done so many times since last July. But the key question is not why all these people worshipped at the altar, but how the altar became so powerful. It is parts of the media, and not the politicians, that are still the ones in the dock.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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