Ross McKibbin · Politicians and the Press

In all democratic societies the relations between politicians and the press are close and problematic. But in Britain those relations developed earlier than anywhere else; earlier even than in the United States or France. Britain was the first society to develop a mass urban industrial working class and industrial-commercial middle class. Its newspapers were a consequence of this, and some, like the News of the World or the Daily Mirror, had circulations without equal in the world. In such circumstances it was inevitable that the political class and the newspaper-owning class – who were often, as in the case of Lord Beaverbrook, the same people – would become intimate, since both thought the press a uniquely powerful instrument of persuasion.

What is now different is the one-sidedness of the relationship. The media magnates have been on top and politicians have been anxious to do their bidding, or at least be seen to do their bidding. This has influenced policy at its most serious. Tony Blair probably would have backed America in its Iraq adventure anyway, but the support of the Murdoch press was surely an element in his calculation. New Labour’s whole electoral strategy was built on winning the approval of the Sun.

I would be surprised if, say, in 1915-16 Lloyd George (a very media conscious man) saw or had dealings with the Harmsworths (the Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere) on fewer occasions than we know Cameron saw the Murdochs over the last year. But Lloyd George was manipulating them more than they manipulated him. He wanted the premiership and the support of the Conservative press was one way of getting it.

Few of the press owners’ political campaigns in the interwar years had much or any success. Lord Rothermere’s ‘anti-waste’ campaign of the early 1920s did moderately well because it suited the interests and inclinations of the backbench Tory MPs who wanted to overthrow Lloyd George’s coalition government. But his other ‘campaigns’ – support for Hungary, for the British Union of Fascists in its early days – were almost comical failures.

Beaverbrook’s campaigns for imperial economic union were more serious and caused Stanley Baldwin real trouble. In March 1931, however, Baldwin decided enough was enough. In a speech during a by-election in which there was a Beaverbrook candidate standing against an official Conservative, Baldwin said that the Beaverbrook and Rothermere papers were not newspapers in the ordinary meaning of the word. They were

engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning by putting sentences apart from the context, suppression, and editorial criticism of speeches which are not reported in the paper... What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.

The official Conservative won easily and though it was thought that Beaverbrook and Baldwin had agreed a kind of truce, Baldwin in fact won hands down.

It is inconceivable that any British political leader would have said something similar of Murdoch in the last twenty years or so. Even until the 1980s, though they knew they had to live with the press, the political class would never have grovelled to it as they have done recently (especially when New Labour was in office). As an elite in an only partly democratic society they could still expect to be heard with some respect, while the old Labour Party took the view that since they would never get a fair hearing from the capitalist press it wasn’t really worth trying. Blair, Brown and Cameron belong to a political elite in a much more democratic society without the alternative cultural, social or financial resources that their predecessors had. Baldwin’s famous phrase about ‘power without responsibility’ was suggested by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling. No modern political leader has that kind of cultural resource.

Because politics is the modern politician’s only resource, and winning elections the only criterion of success, our political class is an elite without any self-confidence, either in their own unaided capacities or in a politics that does not depend on the media, and especially the popular press – even though circulation has been steadily falling across the board. They have, furthermore, constantly exaggerated the influence of the press because they have hardly any other explanation for the way politics proceeds, and their advisers assure them there is no other explanation. I would be surprised if the current scandal changes much.


  • 22 July 2011 at 11:18pm
    James Tapper says:
    While I agree with your analysis that Murdoch has had more power than any other press baron, I think there's one element missing. His greatest trick was convincing politicians of the illusion of choice. The Sun and NotW have been set apart from other papers over the last two decades in that they were positioned as floating voters. The same thing can't be said for the Mail, the Telegraph, the Mirror or the Guardian. Tony Blair would have been on a fool's errand to convince Paul Dacre to back Labour and David Cameron will never have the support of the Mirror or Guardian.

    Until Tony Blair was elected Labour leader, it seemed inconceivable to his party that a right wing, Tory paper like the Sun would actually back them in a general election. It's been commonplace in recent weeks for politicians to suggest that they have been in thrall to Murdoch almost as soon as he bought the NotW in 1969. Yet Labour MPs routinely criticised Murdoch in Parliament until Blair became leader. The Independent has a cutting from 1998 referring to a motion sponsored by Alistair Darling in 1994 that criticised Murdoch for the newspaper price cutting wars of the time. It was Blair's courtship of Murdoch - and his reciprocation, no doubt in anticipation of a Labour victory - that handed him the sort of power that no other press baron has enjoyed.

    His willingness to switch sides gave him influence denied to the more traditionally partisan papers. The Labour leadership knew they would have to keep Murdoch on side in 2002 and 2007 to maintain his papers' support. Meanwhile the Tories believed Murdoch might support them again - but not if they stood in the way of his commercial ambitions. That's how his power was derived. It broke because Ed Milliband could see no likelihood that the Sun would back Labour in 2015, and probably saw little use in obtaining it.