If the cursory level of questioning of the Sun’s editorial executives is to be any guide, David Cameron has little to fear from the Leveson Inquiry’s brief to make recommendations on the “future conduct of relations” between politicians, media proprietors and newspaper editors.
Dominic Mahon, editor of the Sun, who was among five executives who gave evidence (9.1.2012), faced only a superficial inquiry about Rupert Murdoch’s involvement in the Sun’s endorsement of the Conservatives at the 2010 general election.
Mahon was similarly not pressed to give any details of his four meetings with the Prime Minister in the twelve months since the general election; nor was there any probing of the Sun’s political campaigning on behalf of the government. In August 2010 Cameron was given two-page spreads in the Sun to launch a hotline to expose “benefit scroungers” or another in October 2010 for the re-launch of the Prime Minister’s campaign on behalf of the “Big Society”.
Perhaps the greatest omission in the questioning by the QC for Inquiry, Robert Jay, was the lack of any reference to the pre-election campaigns which the Sun had waged to “rein in the BBC” and restrain the broadcasting regulator Ofcom in advance of News Corporation’s ill-fated bid for total control of BSkyB.
Jay gave Mahon every opportunity to explain why he believed the Sun was a “real force for good” through initiatives like its “Help for Heroes” campaign but the QC did not follow this through by asking him to justify those campaigns which were commercially advantageous to News Corporation.
The lack of any follow-up questions about David Cameron’s relationship with the Murdoch press was all the more surprising given the evidence earlier in the day by the former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie who gave a blow-by-blow account of the conversations with two former Prime Ministers, John Major and Gordon Brown.
When telephoned by John Major at the height of the Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis in 1992, MacKenzie confirmed that he told the then Prime Minister that he intended to throw a “bucket of shit” over him in next day’s edition of the Sun.
MacKenzie also confirmed that when the Sun abandoned the Labour Party after Gordon Brown’s speech at the 2009 party conference, the then Prime Minister telephoned Rupert Murdoch and “roared at him” for twenty minutes. “Yes, Murdoch told me that at the end of the conversation, Brown said ‘You are trying to destroy me and my party and I will try to destroy you and your company’.”
When Robert Jay asked about Murdoch’s current involvement during Dominic Mahon’s editorship of the Sun and whether the proprietor had any influence over editorial content, Mahon replied: “No, he has never tried to interfere.”
In reply to Jay’s question about contact with politicians, Mahon said he did meet politicians on occasion. “I have seen Cameron several times in the past year. He came to the Sun’s military and police awards. I had a one to one session with him, a catch up on various issues of the day, about concerns we might have.”
But Mahon brushed aside Jay’s question as to whether Cameron had discussed the Sun’s political support. “You must ask him about that,” replied Mahon. But Mahon did justify the Sun’s endorsement of the Conservatives:
“I think we felt for some time that the country was ripe for a change and we reflected those concerns...I think the Sun is good at capturing the zeitgeist of the country and that was partly borne out by the result of the general election...Yes, I would discuss the mood of the country with him (Rupert Murdoch) and who I felt was perhaps the best choice for the leadership of the country...Yes I believe he supported the Sun’s change in allegiance.”
Jay: “Was this Murdoch’s idea or your idea?”
Mahon: “It was a mixture, a group decision. I and my fellow executives felt this was the right way to go and we made our feelings known to Murdoch.”
The terms of reference for the Leveson Inquiry include inquiring into the “contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians” and to make recommendations about the “future conduct of relations between politicians and the press.”
Illustrations: The Times, 10 January, 2012