Steve Richards: The curious indifference of rival papers and politicians

The elected leaders still pay homage to non-elected media owners. Who can blame them? Papers shape opinions

Share
Related Topics

The phone hacking scandal is as shocking as the one that erupted around MPs' expenses. The two stories have a lot in common.



MPs claimed for duck houses because that is what had become acceptable behaviour within a lightly regulated institution. Some went further and broke the law. The stretching or breaking of rules was not discussed within the institution because most MPs considered their money-raising to be of little significance.

Now it seems phone hacking was widespread in some newspapers and no questions were asked. In parts of News International the extensive abuse is becoming a whispered defence: "Don't pick on us, everyone was doing it."

The excuse heightens the scale of the scandal. Phone hacking was common – not for any public interest, but in an attempt to get some juicy stories to sell newspapers.

However, there are two big differences with the expenses scandal. Then newspapers were united in their scathing, fuming disdain. Now some of them are curiously indifferent to the revelations. After the resignation of Andy Coulson last Friday, one or two papers called for a drawing of the line in the pursuit of those responsible. One or two others barely report the allegations.

The other difference relates to the response of political leaders to the growing revelations. With good cause, newspapers were united in their outrage at MPs' expenses claims. Political leaders are not so expressive in their disapproval of what seems to have gone on in some newspapers.

The Independent on Sunday reported Gordon Brown's worries about his phone being hacked. Brown's concerns did not stop him seeking to woo Murdoch and members of his entourage with a desperate and pathetic persistence, ending only when The Sun announced with a bullying swagger that it was switching sides on the night that the Labour leader had delivered his speech to his party conference.

Before he was Prime Minister, Brown used to compete with Tony Blair for a hearing with Murdoch. Some joked that Murdoch found it exhausting to clear the time for both of them.

At least I assume it was a joke.

Lance Price, Alastair Campbell's deputy, has described Murdoch as the third most influential figure in the new Labour era. Brown's persistence is more than equalled by David Cameron's assiduous efforts to pay homage. Aware of the pressure on Coulson and conscious of a sensitive decision still to be made on Murdoch's bid for more extensive ownership of Sky, Cameron still mixes socially with leading figures in the media empire.

While his Business Secretary, Vince Cable, finds himself suddenly powerless to decide on the empire's ownership ambitions for fear of inadvertently voicing his disapproval into a hidden tape recorder, other ministers from Cameron down wine and dine with the mighty at News International.

One of the great emblematic images of our age was that of party leaders waiting nervously each evening for the mighty Daily Telegraph to inform them which MPs they would destroy the following morning over expenses, the supposedly powerful in daily thrall to a non-elected editor.

Now the roles are reversed and a media empire is in trouble. Yet the choreography is unchanged. The elected leaders still pay homage to the non-elected owners. Who can blame them? Even with declining circulations, papers have the power to shape opinion and influence the views of broadcasters. David Cameron would be making a big mistake if he appointed as a successor to Coulson a press secretary with no experience in newspapers.

The broadcasters will make a leader look good on TV if he is receiving positive newspaper coverage. They will make him look weak if the mood towards him is negative in the parts of the media that are allowed to express forceful, partisan opinions.

Cameron has enjoyed much cheerleading coverage in The Times and The Sun, two newspapers that have adopted a critical view of Ed Miliband. No wonder both of them, hoping for more good coverage in the future, keep quiet about phone hacking.

If Murdoch was the third most influential figure in the New Labour era, his prominence was partly a reflection of the cautious fear of Blair and Brown, brought up in an era when The Sun could destroy a Labour leader.

But their desire to please a mighty media owner was based on reason. Indeed, they were both instinctively astute at realising where power lay in Britain and were too in awe to do anything about it in relation to media ownership.

I suspect that one of Ed Miliband's long-term objectives will be to address the issue of media ownership in Britain. In the short and medium-term he needs them more than they need him.

If Miliband gets an invitation to address the Murdoch empire in Australia, I suspect he will get the next flight out.

This is a story about journalists losing control. The response to MPs' losing control was the introduction of an almost comically tough external regulator. In this case I doubt if much will change. Some journalists and newspaper empires are more powerful than puny elected representatives.



React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before