John Rentoul: Brown battles the forces of Murdoch

The News Corporation dynasty did not cause the Prime Minister's troubles, but it is not about to come to his aid

Sunday 26 July 2009 00:00 BST

Important political news broke in The Sun last week. No, not that Harry Potter is a Liberal Democrat – or, rather, that Daniel Radcliffe has given an interview to a gay magazine (although he isn't gay) to say "I rather like Nick Clegg" and he would "almost certainly" vote Lib Dem. It was that David Cameron declared – "for the first time" – that he was "ready to govern".

It is easy to mock, so let us do it. In all previous interviews, the Conservative leader had been quite emphatic that he was not yet ready to assume the responsibility of office. "I want to put all my books in alphabetical order first," he told Andrew Marr. "I'd love to, but Francis Maude hasn't got back to me on the 20 per cent cut in the Welsh Office budget that I've asked for," he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

As we all know, though, the real significance of The Sun's generous and favourable treatment of Cameron's interview, in which the Conservative leader said absolutely nothing new, was that it was another pigeon step in the rapprochement between the Murdoch empire and the modern Tory party.

For 17 years, one of the central questions of British politics has been: whom will Murdoch back? Ever since a vicious campaign by The Sun helped to trash Neil Kinnock in 1992, that has been the question. The Murdoch press turned on John Major because he wasn't Margaret Thatcher, and it embraced Tony Blair because he did a good job of pretending he was. When David Cameron became the "heir to Blair", he hoped to inherit the Murdoch benediction, but the old man played with him, as with a particularly cheeky great-nephew.

Soon after Cameron seized the Tory leadership, Rupert Murdoch was asked what he thought of him. "Not much. He's bright. He's quick. He's totally inexperienced. I do not know what substance is there or what he really believes. He's a rich young man, educated at Eton and Oxford. Nothing wrong with that. I went to Oxford and didn't get nearly as good a degree as he got. Then he went lobbying for a few years; four years ago he became an MP and now he's an alternative prime minister because he gave one good speech at the party conference." And he said he liked Gordon Brown "very much".

But he teasingly said that "we" wanted to see Cameron and Brown up against each other for "at least a year to 18 months", so that "we can decide which of those most coincides with our views". Well, time's up. And the answer is that the candidate prime minister that most coincides with Murdoch's view of which will win the next election is David Cameron. In the meantime, Cameron had taken the hard-headed precaution of hiring one of Murdoch's favourites two years ago.

Andy Coulson, the editor of the News of the World who took the rap for the voicemail hacking case, is an able press secretary in his own right; but it did Cameron no harm that he was also well connected to all parts of the News Corp operation. So the answer to the question, "Will Murdoch back Cameron?" is: "Of course."

But both the question and the answer are more complex than they appear to be. First, Murdoch: which one? Rupert is the patriarch, but he is 78, and his son James is now the boss of News International, publishers of The Sun, The Times, News of the World and The Sunday Times. Cameron literally went out of his way to ingratiate himself with Rupert. Last August he delayed his holiday to stop by Murdoch's yacht in the Greek islands for drinks. But there are differences in outlook between father and son.

Alastair Campbell's diaries recount a 2002 dinner at No 10 when James contradicted his father by taking the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestine question so vehemently that he apologised for his language afterwards. He is also an environmentalist whose American wife works for the Clinton Climate Initiative, and a cyclist, which ought to mean that he and Cameron have lots in common. As yet, however, there is little evidence that they have bonded.

One thing Rupert and James do seem to share is an anti-establishment mentality, a resentment against British snobbery directed against their family business: they have an no affinity for someone of Cameron's background.

In any case, whether the Murdochs will endorse Cameron at the next election is not the simple, mechanical process that is often assumed. The Sun's headline after the 1992 election, "It's The Sun wot won it", was a self-important exaggeration, and Rupert's teasing of Cameron, royal "we" and all, was partly just showing off.

Of course, as Tony Blair said, when asked after his "feral beast" speech why he courted media proprietors: "They've got power." But there is more truth in the opposite caricature: that Murdoch's newspapers usually see their commercial advantage as being served by aligning themselves with the winning side. Cameron finds himself the beneficiary of forces that not even News Corporation can control. The collapse of New Labour; the inarticulacy of Gordon Brown; the recession; the MPs' expenses fury.

Rupert and James Murdoch are only a part of the media feedback loop that is reflecting back to the electorate a rage against the Prime Minister that they did not create. Brown had good personal relations with Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, but it is unremitting in its hostility towards his Government. Even The Guardian has called for him to stand down. (That is the only thing that could change the media-voter cycle: a new Labour leader before the election. It might not bring The Sun back to advocating a Labour vote, but it might soften the hard edges of partisanship.)

Rupert Murdoch is not the dominant media mogul he once was and certainly not as dominant as the left-wing mythology depicted him. But he and his son are an important part of a tide that is running against Brown, and that will shortly sweep him away.

John Rentoul's blog is at

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