A journalist of fifty years standing offers a personal and independent assessment of the often troubled relationship between public figures and the British news media. My aim is to try to monitor events and issues affecting the ethics of journalism and the latest developments in the rapidly-changing world of press, television, radio and the Internet. Expect too an insight into the black arts of media manipulation. So spin-doctors, Beware!
When previously secretive spin doctors break a self-enforced vow of silence there is usually more than one political agenda at play and that certainly seems to be the case with the unexpected foray by Andy Coulson into the current uncertainties within the Conservative Party.
By firing a well-aimed broadside across the bows of Boris Johnson – accusing the Mayor of London of wanting to see David Cameron “fail miserably” in the 2015 general election – Coulson has more than repaid the respect which the Prime Minister has continued to show for his former Downing Street director of communications.
But why would Coulson, ex- editor of the defunct News of the World – who is due to stand trial in September over conspiracy allegations relating to the hacking of voice mails – choose this moment to come out into the public arena after spending so long in the political shadows.
Since his initial appointment as the Conservative Party’s top spin doctor in May 2007 (within months of his resignation from the News of the World), Coulson has rarely uttered a word in public about his behind-the-scenes role spinning for Cameron both in the run up to the 2010 general election and then during the first seven months of the coalition government.
In my own book Campaign 2010, I made the point that Coulson’s great value to Cameron was that unlike his infamous predecessor in Downing Street, Alastair Campbell, he was not addicted to self publicity; Coulson always kept the lowest possible profile, had no intention of becoming “the story” and did not get caught up in feeding the news media with speculative stories.
Therefore I have to admit I was taken aback by Coulson’s splash in the GQ magazine (July, 2013) in which he reveals his “ten point plan for saving David Cameron and stopping Labour in 2015.” Coulson’s choice of GQ is itself a deft touch, opting for a platform not known for its political commentary but seeing itself as an influential magazine with an aspiring readership.
Political journalists are sometimes accused of stretching a point when they try to argue that history is repeating itself. But the plight of David Cameron does have uncanny similarities with the fate of John Major almost twenty years ago.
Then as now the politics of the Conservative Party were being driven by the Tory Euro-sceptics’ demand for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
Back in the 1990s, during the long haul to the general election of 1997 – and the Conservatives’ eventual wipe out – a political maverick was taunting the Prime Minister.
John Major’s bête noire was the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith who was funding the Referendum Party and paying for a splurge of posters and newspaper advertisements which promoted withdrawal from a federal Europe and called for Britain to return to a common trading market.
Two decades later the sceptics’ flag bearer is not an overbearing grandee but a larger-than-life Nigel Farrage, the bloke next door, only too happy to share a pint and explain why the United Kingdom should free itself from the clutches of the Brussels bureaucracy.
More importantly, UKIP – which back then was in its political infancy – is now a far deadlier threat than Goldsmith’s cheque book. Having been endowed with political stardust, Farrage has the ability, at least for the moment, to mobilise the floating voter, that Holy Grail for every party strategist.
Another hole-in-the-corner deal over press regulation has demonstrated yet again the ineptitude of Lord Justice Leveson in adopting a hands-off approach when he had an historic opportunity during his year-long inquiry to investigate potential collusion between politicians and media proprietors.
The conduit for the latest charade is the Privy Council – the age old institution which among its many roles is its use by ministers as a forum to help resolve conflicts of interest while keeping the state at arm’s length.
Discussions held on Privy Council terms are always off-the-record and such is the establishment’s reliance on a mechanism where negotiations can be conducted without incriminating finger prints that it was not even on the judge’s radar during his superficial examination of the culture of shadowy negotiations between the government of the day and the all-powerful media companies.
Therefore there seems to be little chance of discovering who said what to whom and when in the lead-up to the surprise withdrawal of the Royal Charter on press regulation which had previously been agreed by the political parties. Instead the go ahead was given for consideration of a rival Royal Charter prepared by the newspaper industry.
The decision to postpone approval of the original Royal Charter was made only days before it was due to have been rubber stamped by the Privy Council in mid May 2013.
That was certainly what “Downing Street” had been briefing until the last-minute change of heart by the Prime Minister following what were said to have been behind-the-scenes pressure from “senior Conservatives”; it was then revealed by “government sources” that arrangements had in fact been made for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to put the industry’s alternative Royal Charter out for consultation..
Except for a few passing references the BBC programme Rupert Murdoch: Battle with Britain made no attempt to examine how over the last thirty years his two tabloid newspapers the Sun and the News of the World helped to establish what became a hidden underworld where journalists were encouraged to pay cash for private and often illicitly-gained information.
Steve Hewlett’s commentary as presenter reflected the positive impact of Murdoch’s success in transforming newspaper production and in developing his satellite television services like Sky News but the programme skated over the ethics of the Murdoch press and the potential long-term damage to British journalism.
Murdoch always had the deepest pockets when it came to buying up exclusive stories which for him became a winning formula as he demonstrated immediately after purchasing the News of the World in 1969 and paying £21,000 for the memoirs of Christine Keeler whose affair had forced the resignation of the cabinet minister John Profumo.
Hewlett said the Keeler story was a “classic Murdoch headline grabber”, selling an extra 150,000 copies, and it illustrated the way he shamelessly popularised news content and relied on a “no holds barred approach to eye-catching scoops.”
But except for a few short references to the phone hacking scandal which forced the closure of the News of the World and what the programme said was the existence of a “network of corrupt officials on the Sun’s payroll”, the programme (BBC 2, 28.4.2013) made no attempt to follow up the evidence to the Leveson Inquiry about the way “regular, frequent and sometimes significant” cash payments had been authorised at “a very senior level” within News International.
Margaret Thatcher’s demolition job on the industrial might of the British trade union movement helped to generate not only an economic revolution but has also contributed to a transformation in the way the news media reports the world of work.
Journalists who covered the big industrial disputes of the Thatcher decade ended up writing themselves out of the script and by the late 1980s financial news from the City of London had increasingly taken the place of reportage about employment issues and union affairs.
Millions of days a year were being lost through strike action during the 1970s – an era of union militancy which culminated in the so called “winter of discontent” of 1978-9 – but by the end of her Premiership stoppages were a fraction of what they had once been.
Slowly but surely the unions’ strike weapon had been emasculated. Strike ballots were required by law; walk-outs were no longer possible on a show of hands in a car park; flying pickets and secondary action had been outlawed; and most importantly of all a union’s assets were at risk if there was “unlawful” action, as the NUM President Arthur Scargill discovered to his cost in the 1984-5 pit dispute.
Scargill, like other union leaders of his era, had grown used under the previous Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan to employers giving way but Mrs Thatcher, backed by a largely supportive national press was able to prove that the disputes of the 1980s would be won or lost not just on the picket line but also on the back of public opinion and much of the media’s coverage was turned against the unions.