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Steve Richards: Politicians are finally free from Murdoch's tyranny

The choreography was always the same: elected leaders who were neurotically keen to impress the non-elected media titans

Thursday 07 July 2011 00:00 BST

The tyrants lose their swagger and those that lived in fear dare to speak out. The dynamics of the News International saga are similar to the ones that shape the fall of dictatorial regimes, except in this case it is some mighty media executives who are suddenly fearful and the politicians who are liberated.

Yesterday's exchanges in the Commons were ones I thought I would never witness. They are of historic importance. Senior elected politicians dared to challenge the powerful Murdoch empire and there was an air of catharsis as they did so.

Until the revelations of recent days, Messrs Cameron and Miliband were wary of speaking out. Currently Cameron has the support of every single newspaper in the News International stable. Miliband ached for more sympathetic coverage and feared an onslaught on the scale that helped to destroy Neil Kinnock. Now they are almost free to condemn the ethics of those they feared. For the first time during Prime Minister's Questions, Miliband could display authentic anger without fear of retribution from News International.

One of his private objectives when he became leader was at some point to challenge the debased media culture in Britain. Suddenly his objective becomes public and he will not be torn apart by The Sun this morning or the News of the World on Sunday. It is impossible to overestimate the degree to which, until this week, Murdoch's newspapers were stifling the voice of another scared party leader.

In supporting a full public inquiry, Cameron also went much further than he has done, even if he could not quite sever all ties with a company that has delivered overwhelming support and some friends. For a prime minister to signal distance when he is receiving supportive coverage is as significant as Miliband's more strident onslaught.

The novelty of this transformed choreography takes the breath away. Senior figures in both the bigger parties are used to paying homage. As a BBC political correspondent, I was the only journalist who travelled with Tony Blair in July 1995 for his famous meeting with Rupert Murdoch at a conference in Australia. The investment of political and physical energy was staggering. Murdoch issued an invitation at relatively short notice to Blair, a summons that could not be ignored. Blair, Alastair Campbell and Anji Hunter dropped all plans, flew for 24 hours, taking sleeping pills to manage the jet lag, attended the conference and returned in time for Prime Minister's Questions.

There was no formal deal between the future prime minister and the mighty media emperor during that fleeting round-the-world trip, but I was certain by the end of it that at the very least The Sun would be neutral and Murdoch could relax about future media ownership laws. Subsequently Campbell's deputy in No 10, Lance Price, described Murdoch as the third most powerful figure in the Labour government after Blair and Gordon Brown. Murdoch's editors were the equivalent of powerful apparatchiks in a dictatorship.

Similarly, when in doubt, as Cameron and George Osborne often were in the early days of their leadership, they turned to News International. Their appointment of Andy Coulson showed the importance they attached to securing the endorsement of those who count.

Always the choreography was the same, the elected leaders neurotically keen to impress the non-elected media titans: Blair phoning Murdoch several times in the days leading up to the war in Iraq; Cameron dropping everything to socialise with Rebekah Brooks, the two of them part of the Oxfordshire set where media and politics collide over a good dinner and drinks; Miliband attending the News International summer party last month even though he views the likes of Brooks with disdain and has done for years, too scared not to attend and hoping the bullies might lay off if he did so.

It is easy to condemn these supposedly powerful elected leaders for not establishing distance from amoral rogues before it became safely fashionable to do so. But their timidity is understandable because of what might have happened to them. To take two recent examples, look at what they did to Gordon Brown when he had lost their support in spite of his pathetically arduous (and as it turned out, doomed) wooing. On the day Brown made his leader's speech at the pre-election Labour conference, Brooks declared with imperial arrogance that The Sun was endorsing the Conservatives, in a wrecking move carefully agreed with Coulson. Look also what happened to Nick Clegg during the last election. Clegg had never engaged in wooing. In response to his surging popularity, the Tory-supporting newspapers, including most of those at News International, turned on him, again working closely with Coulson.

Leaders had to make a calculation. Did they dare to challenge the bullies or tame them? For the first time in decades, the question no longer matters. Now the bullies are hiding away and are not publicly accountable. When they are in trouble, politicians have nowhere to hide. But Brooks and others are nowhere to be seen.

Accountability takes many forms. One of those forms applies to the police. As part of the suddenly transformed choreography, "Yates of the Yard" has vital questions to answer about why he led so enthusiastically the doomed "cash for honours" inquiry, an investigation in which he was widely and wrongly portrayed in parts of the media as a hero, but showed little interest in the phone-hacking evidence. In the dramatically changed choreography, the swaggering non-elected officer who might have brought down a prime minister lies low too.

There are many complex, sensitive challenges to come. They include the composition and remit of a public inquiry, how in the future newspapers are regulated, and what happens next in relation to the ownership of BSkyB. This will be a long-running story of uncertain outcome. There is a single certainty. In the relationship between media, politics and the police, nothing will be the same again. Every participant speaks of a turning point. Without qualification it is a turning point to be welcomed.

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