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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

FALL OF THE HOUSE OF MURDOCH XX: How Cameron got Seduced by Newscorp

This week’s testimony by News International’s former lawyers and executives turned into a bit of a damp squib (executives and lawyers boring? How’s that?). But with the start of the Leveson Inquiry, and further arrests by the three police teams now investigatiing phone hacking, computer hacking and corruption of police officials, there’s no danger this schadenfreudefestschrift is going to go away.

So let me take this relative calm to explore British Prime Minister’s  David Cameron’s disastrous decision to employ Andy Coulson, as his main media strategist.

It’s a fascinating tale, that gives a brilliant insight into what Gordon Brown described as the ‘criminal-media nexus‘ which explains the rise of Newscorp as the most powerful global media force.

The Tories and Murdoch: Supping with the Devil with a Long Spoon

Back in December 2005, when David Cameron became Tory Party Leader, there was much talk about how he would detoxify the Tory brand at every level. One of the key elements of that detoxification was that he vowed, thanks to his main PR adviser Steve Hilton, to keep his distance from the grubby mix of personal scandal and political spin which had been the stock in trade of Murdoch’s British newspaper empire.

I know several people close to Hilton, and their plan was to distance themselves from News International and all it stood for.

At this time, the dark tower at the centre of the Murdoch citadel was  the (now defunct) News of World, famed for it’s ruthless hounding of politicians and celebrities through exposes of their private lives. We now know that much of this information was gained illegally, by a variety of forms of computer intrusion, phone cloning to hack private messages, blagging of private information, and extensive criminality. But actually this was actually apparent in 2007 when the newspapers editor, Andy Coulson resigned on the prosecution of Goodman and Mulcaire for hacking the phones of the Royal Family and Staff.

Yet a mere three months after Coulson’s resignation, he had experience a major comeback moment, and was hired by Cameron as Conservative Party communications director.

Three years after that, after the 2010 General Election led to a Tory/Lib Dem Coalition Government, Britain’s new Prime Minister took Coulson into the heart of the British political establishment (despite warnings from senior politicians and newspaper editors) and made him Tne Downing Street’s Number 10’s Head of Communications on a public paid salary.  

How did that transformation happen?

How did a disgraced tabloid editor get to the centre of the British political establishment?

And why did Cameron enter into this Faustian Pact with the NI Mephistopheles, despite years having dealt with it at arms length?

The Strange Tale of the Chancellor, the Editor and the Prostitute

By all available reports, it was Cameron’s closet political ally, the now Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Obsorne, who lobbied for both Coulson’s appointment, and the rapprochement with News International.

This was partly a strategic move. In 2007, neither Cameron nor the Tories were rising in the polls, and the dedicated opposition of News International’s stable of papers (and its influential Sky News) was a big obstacle. Generally, the inclusion of Coulson in the Tory Team, and the increasing friendship between Cameron and Rebekah Wade (then Editor of The Sun) was viewed as canny politics. Build alliances. Make friends with the right people in NI. Perhaps you might get more favourable press coverage, and win the empire’s endorsement for the next Election – which in due course they did.

But there’s another personal connection between Coulson and Obsorne which is strange to say the least. Osborne was Cameron’s campaign manager in 2005, and during that time a story emerged about him which almost derailed the campaign:

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor and David Cameron’s leadership campaign manager, last night denied allegations of drug use and hit out at what he called an “absurd smear campaign” to bring down his friend.

The senior Tory MP mounted an impassioned defence after two Sunday newspapers alleged he had shared nights out with a drug-taking prostitute.

Mr Osborne, 34, who is widely seen as a rising star and a possible future leader himself, said the allegations were “desperate stuff”. The News of the World and The Sunday Mirror published pictures of Mr Osborne with Natalie Rowe, 42, which the former prostitute claimed also featured drugs paraphenalia.

Mr Osborne, the MP for Tatton, said: “The allegations are completely untrue and dredging up a photo from when I was 22 years old is pretty desperate stuff. This is merely part of an absurd smear campaign to divert attention from the issues that matter in this leadership contest and I am confident that people will not be distracted by this rubbish.”

It’s almost surreal. There was George Obsorne trying to save his reputation, almost in tatters thanks to Andy Coulson, and yet they become in the years after close friends and allies.

There are many speculations about the conversations between the politician and editor over the pictures of him and the prostitute. The truth is that the rival Daily Mirrror was going to publish anyway, and that Coulson promised Osborne that he could find a way to make the pictures enhance his career.

Previously seen as a privileged automaton, the pictures, which show no direct drug use,  show Osborne embracing a woman who was the mother of the his close friend’s child. With the right spin, it could show Osborne as both loyal to a friend, and less boring and remote.

The spin worked. Osborne’s career was not damaged. Cameron won the campaign. A new generation of Tories – cooler, hipper, more connected with the people -seemed to be in power.

All this is set to reignite again in the next week. As the Independent reports today, Natalie Rowe has recorded an interview with ABC television which casts new light on their relationship:

The phone-hacking scandal is set to be reignited this week when Natalie Rowe, a former prostitute, is interviewed on Australian television. Ms Rowe, who came to prominence in October 2005 when a picture of her at a dinner table with George Osborne was published on the front of two red-top Sunday newspapers, has been told by police that she was targeted by Glenn Mulcaire, later convicted for phone hacking while being paid by News International, owner of the News of the World. Mr Osborne has received the same notification.

Of course, this sole incident doesn’t explain the extensive connections between our current Tory leadership and News International – so strong that, until the scandal, senior goverment ministers would meet the top NI executives at least once a week. But it does give an insight into that strange combination of tabloid expose, media power, and the trading of information at the highest levels of corporate and government life.

The ABC interview, conducted by the network’s Europe repo
rter, Emma Alberici, is being kept under wraps, and no one at the broadcaster would comment on the programme, but it could be broadcast as early as tomorrow. Attention at Westminster is likely to focus on any light it might shed on the Chancellor’s relationship with Mr Coulson, who resigned from his job at No 10 in January following pressure over phone hacking. “Why put someone forward for a job, as Osborne did, when you know what a disservice they have done you?” said a broadcasting source.

Of course many papers have come to operate like this, but Newscorp are the market leaders. I’ve often said that, in the Information Age, Newscorp is a monopoly like Standard Oil. But their monopoly revolves less around editorial endorsements of one party or another, but a more simple direct access to effective blackmail and the politics of personal destruction.

And it seems to have worked. Till now.  

1 comment

  1. Shaun Appleby

    The prayer is, “How long will this bullsh*t go on:”

    The phone hacking scandal in the U.K. hasn’t muzzled Rupert Murdoch in his native Australia, where his newspaper empire is doing more than any other to undermine Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

    Less than two months ago, Murdoch told the U.K. Parliament that the theft of voicemails by his News of the World made his appearance “the most humble day of my life.” That’s not the way it feels to members of Gillard’s Labor party, who say a drumbeat of criticism by his papers has created a “climate of fear,” according to Australian lawmaker John Murphy.

    Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph, the best-selling daily newspaper in Australia’s largest city of Sydney, is “running a campaign on regime change,” according to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. Gillard herself demanded and got a retraction and apology from the Australian, another daily owned by the billionaire’s News Corp. (NWSA), after it printed a falsehood. She said the Daily Telegraph should enter another report “for one of our fiction prizes.”

    “It’s not surprising at all that Murdoch is at it again in Australia while the U.K. phone-hacking scandal is still fresh,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex and the author of “The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron.” “He tries to use his economic power to get political influence. It’s part of his business model.”

    Gemma Daley and Robert Fenner – Murdoch Makes No Retreat From Scandals With Attack on Australia Government 12 Sep 11

    More of the same from Down Under.  Murdoch has a 70% stranglehold on the media down here.  Will someone not remove this stone from our shoes?

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