There will be no Christmas cards from Rupert Murdoch for his old chum Andrew Neil this year, after the ex-editor of London’s Sunday Times let fly at his former boss in a written submission to Britain’s Leveson Inquiry.
This morning, Rupert was hitting back on Twitter to his 284,879 followers, with the advice: “Anyone taking any notice of Andrew Neil on me is an idiot”.
Neil’s key claim to Leveson is that Rupert did ask for (and receive) favours from British politicians, despite swearing on oath to the inquiry that he has never done so.
The first example Neil cites is a request Murdoch supposedly made to Margaret Thatcher in the run up to the Wapping dispute with the print unions in 1985. “He (Murdoch) made it clear to me one night in my office,” says Neil, “that he had gone to Mrs Thatcher to get her assurance -- to ‘square Thatcher’ in his words -- that enough police would be made available to allow him to get his papers out past the massed pickets at Wapping once the dispute got underway. She was fully ‘squared’, he reported. She had given him assurances on the grounds that she was doing no more than upholding the right of his company to go about its lawful business. I remember this because he added that he could never have got the same assurances from the Mayor of New York or the NYPD.”
Neil’s second example relates to Tony Blair’s 2003 Communications Act, which paved the way for Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB, by ending the ban on foreign ownership of TV licences in Britain. “This was something Mr Murdoch’s people lobbied hard for,” says Neil, “and they had unique and extensive access to the levers of power at the heart of the Blair government to make this lobbying effective. When Mr Murdoch testified before this Inquiry that he had never asked government for anything it gave me cause to wonder if he had forgotten this - or forgotten he was testifying under oath.”
But while these are the accusations that will make headlines, The Power Index is equally interested in Neil’s analysis of why Murdoch wielded so much clout in Britain. “News International is the most politically powerful media group not just because it is the biggest but because it is prepared to be politically promiscuous,” he says. “Most British newspapers don’t change sides … But News International is up for grabs, depending on the circumstances.”
“In the 1970s,” Neil continues, “The Sun was pro-Labour. It became the praetorian guard of Thatcherism in the 1980s and stuck with the Tories in the early 1990s. Then it changed to New Labour.”
Neil traces the source of Murdoch’s power to the late 1980s when The Sun was the “most virulent tormentor” of Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who “learned the hard way what it was like to be on the wrong end of a press out to get you, day in, day out.”
By attacking Kinnock relentlessly in its news and feature pages (as well as in its opinion columns) The Sun helped the Tories win the 1992 election, says Neil. (The paper famously bragged 'IT WAS THE SUN WOT WON IT'.)
At this point, New Labour -- led by Tony Blair -- decided it must get Rupert and his editors onside if it was ever to get into power. But, according to Neil, it “was prepared to pay a high price, in terms of access and influence” for Murdoch’s support.
“There was no deal, as such. Nothing as unsophisticated as Mr Murdoch saying to Mr Blair: ‘We will back you in return for the following ...’ But there was, in my view, undoubtedly an understanding. ‘How we treat Rupert Murdoch’s media interests when in power,’ Mr Blair told me in 1996, a year before he became Prime Minister ‘will depend on how his newspapers treat the Labour party in the run up to the election.’ That is exactly how it panned out.“
“New Labour in power did nothing to undermine or threaten Mr Murdoch’s British media interests,” says Neil, who claims that it tolerated Murdoch having 37% of the nation’s print media, “resolutely repelled tougher cross-ownership” rules and paved the way for News to bid for full control of BSkyB.
There is nothing new in press proprietors trying to influence governments, says Neil, “But the Blair-Murdoch relationship was on an entirely different scale, unique I believe in political-press relationships … Much of the upper echelon of the Murdoch organisation was involved at the heart of the New Labour government, a vortex of relationships which permeated the Blair government and included not just Prime Minister and proprietor but their senior lieutenants … This nexus of relationships … took place behind closed doors, unrecorded in official minutes and unseen by the public. It has never been fully revealed or exposed and, I believe, is unprecedented in the history of press proprietor / government relationships.”
“Barely a week went by when there was not some high-level discourse between senior government and Murdoch representatives. It was close, persistent, and politically incestuous. It involved not just professional relationships but friendships and family ties, with wives and even children dragooned in the cause of interlinking the personal with the political, which manifested itself in slumber parties, checking diaries to make sure children could play together while wives met, duties as a godfather and even extra-marital affairs.”
When Labour was finally booted out of power after 13 years, the Tory-led Cameron government picked up where Blair had left off. Initially, says Neil, Cameron had attempted to keep his distance, but he was forced to woo Murdoch because he found himself friendless in the media. Thus, “A whole new nexus was created, culminating in The Sun ditching Labour for the Tories in 2009 and all the Murdoch papers backing Mr Cameron in the 2010 general election.”
“Again, the relationship went well beyond party leader and proprietor, involving senior lieutenants on both sides, enhanced by a series of personal relationships involving Mr Cameron, James Murdoch, Rebecca Brooks, George Osborne and Andy Coulson, who at the height of Tory panic in the summer of 2007 had been appointed Mr Cameron’s spin-doctor as part of his new strategy to get closer to the Murdoch organisation. I do not think the Cameron-Murdoch nexus was quite as ubiquitous as it had been in the Blair-Brown years or permeated as far into the policy process; but it was extensive and quotidian nevertheless.”
And Rupert’s response to this? His full tweet today reads: "Anyone taking any notice of Andrew Neil on me is an idiot. Neil treated bestof [sic] all ex-employes [sic] now shows true colors."
Presumably that would be pink? Or is it yellow? We await clarification.