I’m not sure this is more urgent than the destruction of the NHS, or the latest recession (remember sherbet dips at primary school? It makes it hard to quail at the notion of the double dip), but I couldn’t take my eyes off this week’s magnates and moguls parade at the Leveson Inquiry.
Each of them has said with the innocence of new-born babes that it was perfectly normal to meet, have picnics with, host on yachts, and give political and economic tutorials to upcoming and serving prime ministers, to help them understand the commercial situation which they grasp so well and prime ministers do not. I suppose if you are a scion of Lebedev or a Barclay boy, you might imagine that whatever you do is perfectly normal. You could protest that it’s just a plain waste of being rich if it doesn’t bring influence, rather than merely the latest Louboutins as ordered by a dictator’s wife, or at any rate a good enough education to avoid extreme naivety. Nevertheless, perhaps Aidan Barclay just doesn’t know that I’ve never popped into Downing Street to discuss my business interests with Blair or Cameron. We all think our own lives are normal, so if you are born into influence and wealth that’s regular too and it might result in babbling innocence.
But these past two days, Rupert Murdoch seemed to want to be considered one of the grown-ups. He didn’t just claim that regular supping with PMs was normal, he made a statement that wanted to refer to something bigger than his own narrow life. Only Murdoch said that being visited by Cameron or Blair, or popping in to Number 10 by the back door, was actually part of the democratic process. The beating heart of democracy, according to Murdoch, involves prime ministers and other elected politicians rushing to the side of the newspaper proprietor to gain his approval for their policies, so that the 36 per cent of the media which he owns will write favourably about them, and persuade the readership to support and re-elect them. That democratic process.
Murdoch, placing his hands flat on the desk in front of him by way of emphasis, insisted that he has no influence on politicians and no interest in influencing them. He never asked Blair, Cameron or Thatcher, with whom he secretly met while bidding for the Times newspapers, for anything, nor did they ask anything of him. Robert Jay, lead counsel to the inquiry, suggested gently that the negotiations would be more subtle than that, but Murdoch simply batted away the idea of nuance. He is not a subtle man and in an inquiry, rather than a court of law, this serves him well. As Martin Kettle says in the Guardian, all these moguls, senior and junior, displayed ‘intellects of surprising ordinariness’. It doesn’t matter, because they can keep forgetting whether or not they were there, had the phone call or conversation, or simply deny any allegation that is put to them, while Jay or Leveson occasionally asks: ‘Are you sure about that?’
Murdoch went one better than the lads, and issued his denials along with contemptuous dismissals of the probity of those who made them. Faced with first-person accounts of the way in which he influenced editorial policy, he didn’t just reject the charge, he told of Harry Evans begging him for political direction (fiercely denied), Andrew Neil making large profits from ‘spreading lies’ about him, and David Yelland (‘What would Rupert think? It was like a mantra’), being drunk in charge of a newspaper. Yet several times Murdoch insisted ’if any politicians want to know what I think they can read the editorials in the Sun’. But then again: ‘We are perhaps the only independent newspaper in this business.’ Moreover, it seems that what Rupert Murdoch and I have in common is that neither I nor he ‘knows many politicians’. Inconsistent? Well, that’s quite an effective ploy. So too is the partial guilt strategy: he should have paid more attention to the News of the World. He allowed himself to be deceived by his editors and lawyers. He spoke of a ‘cover-up we were victim to’.
Not so effective was the good ol’ boy position he tried out once or twice. When asked about Sarah Brown’s pyjama party attended by Rebekah Brookes, he considered it irrelevant: ‘I think there were just a bunch of women, mainly complaining about their husbands probably.’ No one laughed. And when the NUJ lawyer described the evidence of a woman journalist who had suffered years of bullying at one of Murdoch’s union-free papers, he replied with a shrug: ‘Why didn’t she resign?’ Leveson suggested that she may have needed a job.
Maybe he’s just a poor, confused old man, under, as he says, constant attack from people with purely commercial interests (Dacre of the Mail, for example, although it turned out that the quote Murdoch held up as horrifically venal in fact referred to something Dacre said of News International, not Dacre’s own paper), but if so he’s a poor old man in charge of a great many newspapers, who stated today with reference to Justice Eady’s ruling that News of the World reporters were guilty of blackmailing witnesses in the Max Mosley case: ‘Journalists doing a favour for someone and receiving a favour back is pretty much everyday business.’
On Twitter, when Murdoch’s evidence was trending, the parasitic porno bots arrived, inviting clicks on to their sites, two of them tweeting with poor spelling, but uncanny relevance:
Rupert Murdoch: Tudor, truth is devestating.
Rupert Murdoch: Muffin, the lie is devestating.