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
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The Independent Online

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.