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How long before Leveson is kicked into the long grass?

November 29, 2012

LOL – now he knows what it means – must have been David Cameron’s reaction after reading Lord Leveson’s report on the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press. First came an audible sigh of relief over the vindication of his own reputation, which– despite inappropriate platonic text dalliance with La Brooks, now awaiting Her Majesty’s Pleasure on several criminal charges; oh, and former prime ministerial comms director Andy Coulson, let’s not forget him – received not a brickbat; then a guffaw over the exoneration of his health and former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, once he realised Leveson had whitewashed his role in the BSkyB/Murdoch saga at the expense of Hunt’s mendacious adviser, Adam Smith.

But the biggest laugh of all was surely reserved for Leveson’s keystone proposal: a statutory “underpinning” to press regulation. Over Cameron’s dead body. The introduction of any such measure, however camouflaged, would be tantamount to the Tory leader committing political suicide.

This “underpinning” business is the crux of the report, and the reason why it  – like the 7 inquests into the power of the press over the last 70 years preceding it – will be kicked into the long grass as soon as dignity allows.

Let’s be quite clear. Neither Leveson nor any of the 300 or so witnesses called before the inquiry demanded explicit intervention by the state or politicians in the conduct of British newspapers. The debate is a lot more nuanced than that and concerns not whether – that is a given on all sides – but how the current, flaccid, self-regulatory apparatus – known as the Press Complaints Commission – should be given independent coercive force.

The newspaper proprietors and editors want PCC-Plus – no surprise there. While there are shades of difference between the Hunt/Black proposals (both these peers are prominent members of the PCC) and the axis represented by The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent, the press is united on one vital prerequisite to reform. Under no circumstances should there be any statutory element – direct or indirect – in the new, toughened regulatory framework, whatever final form it takes.

And that’s just where Leveson disagrees with them. His point is that no form of self-regulation can be credibly independent when newspaper proprietors – whatever their pious assertions about newspaper ethics in public – continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. PCC-Plus might enable them to do this in a number of ways. Though serving editors would now be excluded from any committee of the Good and the Wise, proprietors could exercise covert influence over the selection of those sitting in regulatory judgement over them through financial manipulation. One of the prime principles of self-regulation is, after all, the inalienable right of the industry being regulated to pay for its own regulation. Lack of financial love might well be shown towards any candidate considered even mildly resistant to the idea of uncurbed press freedom, in the form of a threatened funding boycott.

And that’s just for starters. What about speedy redress of wrongs? What of punishment that actually fits the crime – as opposed to a self-administered slap on the wrist, or impractically long and expensive court cases which are beyond the means of most would-be litigants?

For these and other reasons, Leveson seems to believe that only the veiled threat of statutory intervention will give the regulator the independence, public respect and muscle that is so clearly required. Most members of the public, according to recent YouGov opinion poll, agree with him. The trouble is, most of Cameron’s party – the party in power – do not. They know that the backing of newspaper proprietors can be vital to a successful election result; and, once in power, it is very difficult to succeed in the face of an unremittingly hostile press. They also know that whatever any future statute book might say, newspapers are a law unto themselves. And, when it comes down to it, they will portray legislative curbs on their activities as incipient tyranny – and brush it aside accordingly. One thing that hasn’t changed in over 70 years is the truth of then prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s observation that newspaper proprietors enjoy “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” He was referring to Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, whose newspapers had just forced him from office. There’s still a Viscount Rothermere, but nowadays the Beaverbrook clan has been displaced by the Murdoch mafia.

So, statutory “underpinning” – forget it. As for Ofcom being allowed to do the underpinning, don’t make me laugh out loud. Ofcom is out of the frying pan into the fire, in regulatory terms. We can be certain the appointment of its executives will be untouched by the influence of press barons for one very good reason: they are picked by a minister of the crown (currently culture secretary Maria Miller). That aside, what conceivable qualification do a group of career bureaucrats have in passing judgement on press freedom?

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Let’s Raisa stirrup-cup to David Cameron’s poor personal judgement

March 5, 2012

The time has come to fess up to my role in Horsegate. I have ridden a horse since 2010, and more than several times too. It would be a surprise if I hadn’t, you see, because I own one.

Well, two …er, three now I come to think of it, but that was an accident that last one. Yes, I know, inexcusable isn’t it? Also, I’ve ridden to hounds – but long, long ago. Just after the 2005 Hunting Act came in, actually. Not of course that any fox was involved, just a smelly old rag impregnated with urine. Oh, and no more than two dogs …

Did I mention my connection with the Metropolitan Police? Another lapse on my part. It’s all my farrier’s fault really. Until recently, he worked full time for the Met, and he used to shoe Raisa, the police horse that has caused poor Mr Cameron so much trouble with his increasingly defective memory. A bit of a beast, apparently. No end of trouble to shoe, ever since that unfortunate stint with the Riot Squad which made her virtually unrideable. You couldn’t even clench a shoe-iron without the mare rearing uncontrollably.

No, let’s get a grip. I made that last bit up. Just like Mr Cameron’s advisers – starting with the late, unlamented Andy Coulson –  who have constructed a tissue of half-truths and lies around Dave’s not-very-secret interest in horses, the company he kept with race-horse trainer Charlie Brooks and with Brooks’, er, dear wife, the ever lovely Rebekah.

Oh! What a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive!

And for what purpose? Ex-plod horse Raisa, now sadly deceased, is of course Cameron’s worst political nightmare incarnate. What could more emblematically sum up Flame-haired Medusa, News International, Andy Coulson, phone-hacking, Rupert Murdoch, police corruption, political favouritism and poor personal judgement in just one word?

Yet, in a way, that’s not the worst of it.

Never mind that Charlie Brooks took the near-useless nag on at personal cost and out of compassion, to save her from the knacker’s yard. To the uninitiated – that is, to most of Cameron’s voters, urban-dwellers who may never have encountered a real horse in their lives – it looks like yet more upper-class horse-trading.

Never mind that most horse-owners (in my experience at any rate) appear to live in an economic twilight zone where they can barely afford to keep themselves, let alone what’s in the yard – the horse in this country is an inescapable symbol of poshness and privilege.

And poshness and privilege being unforgivable electoral sins, Dave and his Lord Snooty chum George Osborne have, not without cause, a deep psephological neurosis about them.

Remember that undertaking Cameron made to hold a free vote on fox-hunting in this parliament? No, he can’t either. Another lamentable example of his fading memory.


Holier-than-thou Trinity may come a cropper over Sunday Mirror

July 8, 2011

I note, with some amusement, that shares in Sunday Mirror publisher Trinity Mirror have soared to their highest level in a year. A development not unconnected with Rupert Murdoch’s draconian decision yesterday to close down its principal rival, the News of the World.

Which gooseberry bush were these City folk puffing Trinity’s stock born under? The knee-jerk thinking seems to be that the NoW’s nemesis is the Sunday Mirror’s good fortune. All that £40m-worth of advertising formerly populating the News of the Screws will have to find a new home. And where better targeted than the Sunday Mirror, whose own annual revenue is languishing at something under £20m? According to City analyst Alex de Groot, that figure could increase by over 50% to £30m.

Er, not necessarily Alex. Beyond the perspective of the next few Sundays, this is no zero sum game. Murdoch’s misery is a reverse for the whole red-top sector, and the Sunday Mirror may well turn out to be one of the prime collateral casualties.

Why so? The phone-hacking scandal and associated police corruption is now to be the remit of a judicial inquiry. Not that I have much faith in the individual acumen of the judge, whoever that may be, presiding over it. Lord Hutton’s wilfully eccentric conclusions drawn from his own inquiry into the ‘sexed up’ WMD dossier cured me of any such illusions. What did impress me about the Hutton Inquiry was the wealth of uncontrollable detail that spilled into the public domain. I suspect a similar torrent of information will pour out of this, as yet unnamed, inquiry (relayed verbatim, no doubt, on The Guardian’s website, if nowhere else).

The key word here is “uncontrollable”. It is no longer possible, if it were ever desirable, to restrict the terms of reference of such an inquiry to the News of the World. It will, inevitably, have to investigate the whole culture of phone-tapping and police bungs rife within the tabloids these past 15 years.

Trinity has vigorously denied any complicity. That’s not strictly true, though, is it? In terms of sensationalism, the case of Paul Marsden MP may not be up there with NoW’s blatant and cynical tapping of war widows’ voicemail messages. But it tells an unsavoury tale all the same.

The Lib-Dem MP decided to step down in 2006 after a spate of revelations in the Sunday Mirror detailing various adulterous affairs. No doubt the Sunday Mirror had every right to expose the “love cheat” exploits of the errant MP. Less evidently justifiable are the means by which it seems to have acquired its information. According to Marsden these involved voicemail hacking and impersonating a policeman. It may be of more than passing interest that the Sunday Mirror reporter responsible for the Marsden story subsequently moved to NoW, at a time when Andy Coulson was editor. I’m sure Marsden himself would happily update us on the details.

If the Marsden case proves more than a bizarre lapse of judgement, I wonder how long advertisers will remain at the Sunday Mirror? And what will become of Trinity’s share price then?

UPDATE 23/7/11: I wonder who the ‘Master of the Dark Arts’ is? Sure enough, the Sunday Mirror is now up to its neck in phone-hacking scandal, after a Newsnight exposé. Here’s an excerpt, reported in The Guardian:

The source said: “One reporter, who was very good at it, was called ‘the Master of Dark Arts’. At one point in 2004, it seemed like it was the only way people were getting scoops. If they didn’t just randomly hack people in the news, they would use it to stand up stories that people had denied.”

According to the former employee, the “dark arts” were used to try to beat the News of the World at its own game.


Bad news for Rebekah Brooks, but good news for BSkyB’s Jeremy Darroch

July 6, 2011

Jeremy Darroch, chief executive of BSkyB, now looks in an even more powerful position to inherit the News International mantle of power (should he wish to) than when I flagged up his significance to the Murdoch empire in my last Marketing Week column.

Rebekah Brooks, NI’s current chief executive, is terminally damaged goods, in the wake of ‘Millygate’. Not to mention ‘Jessica-and-Hollygate’ and ‘7/7-gate’.

For the moment, of course, it’s Andy Coulson, ex-News of the World editor and David Cameron’s former director of communications, who has been thrown to the lions. Thanks to some NI emails which have mysteriously surfaced just in time, Coulson is now a proven liar. He procured, or authorised procurement of, paid information from the police while he was News of the World editor – something he has previously strenuously denied. And for good reason: it is quite illegal.

It’s an astute, if cynical, sacrifice, and proves the Murdochs are still thinking on their feet. Coulson’s disgrace tarnishes both Cameron (by association – after all, he picked Coulson, despite his dodgy reputation, and then backed him to the hilt in his hour of need) and Knacker of the Yard (assistant commissioner John Yates, once the officer in charge of investigating the phone-hacking scandal at the epicentre of the Murdoch crisis, who is now looking woefully ‘under-informed’ and incompetent, after previously vociferously denying the merest scintilla of police complicity in the matter).

Even so the Coulson gambit is, at best, a delaying tactic. It will make our leading politicians and policemen tread a little more carefully, but it will not prevent them from taking decisive action. Public opinion is now too inflamed for them to do anything else.

Inescapably, the smoking gun is pointing at Brooks, née Wade, and editor of News of the World when – it now emerges – NI’s private investigator of choice Glen Mulcaire was hacking into the phones of Milly Dowler’s distressed relatives. She says she knows nothing about it. Do we believe her, any more than we believed Coulson’s protestations of ignorance? I’ll leave that one hanging in the air.

Ordinarily, implicated NI and former NI executives have been able to take refuge in prevarication, in the sure and certain knowledge that rapidly abating public interest will soon allow them to emerge from their burrows relatively unscathed. This crisis is different.

It has an unprecedented commercial dimension to it. Top advertisers, led by Ford, are boycotting News of the World, and that really will hit the Murdochs where it hurts. Ford is the single biggest advertiser, contributing about £4.5m annually to NoW’s £40m display advertising revenue. Halifax (owned by Lloyds Banking Group) has now joined Ford. Other major advertisers believed to be considering their options are T-Mobile/Orange, Vodafone and nPower. The danger, from the Murdochs’ point of view, is that this commercial contagion spreads to other NI newspapers, such as the Sun – which Brooks also edited. It could easily do so, given a swelling social media campaign goading consumers to boycott advertisers who refuse to align themselves behind Ford. (There’s a useful live update on the brands boycott at Marketing Week.)

All of which may well rapidly result in Brooks becoming surplus to NI requirements.

OK, you say, but what has this got to do with Jeremy Darroch? I’m coming to that. Whatever the backwash from the phone-hacking scandal, it will not prevent culture secretary Jeremy Hunt from giving his blessing to Murdoch-vehicle NewsCorp’s acquisition of the 61% of BSkyB it does not already own. Legally, a challenge to that assent is now well-nigh impossible. Indeed, Hunt and the Government would probably be on the receiving end of a writ it they were obstructive.

Let’s assume for a moment that the deal is done, that the Murdochs have pacified BSkyB shareholders with an eye-watering amount of money and are now the proud possessors of the rest of the organisation. What are the repercussions for NewsCorp and in particular its UK-centric arm, NI, in the wake of a full takeover?

BSkyB is one of the UK’s most powerful companies with, just to give the flavour, a marketing communications budget of £1.2bn a year. It is phenomenally cash rich. One estimate reckons that, once acquired, it would contribute 30% of NewsCorp’s cashflow. Like the Murdochs’ newspapers, it is UK-centric. Unlike the newspapers, it is highly profitable. Unlike the newspapers again, it is still a dynamic growth business, which has made good use of product innovation.

In short, it would be the jewel in NI’s crown. Who better to manage that jewel in the new, enlarged organisation – a man of untarnished reputation who intimately understands subscription TV; or Brooks, with her yesterday’s tabloids background?

Of course, I have no idea whether Darroch would actually be interested in such a proposition. He may well take his money and run. But it’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

UPDATE 17.30 – 7/7/11: So, The News of the World is no more. The Sunday edition, shorn of advertising, will be the last in the newspaper’s 168-year history. Nothing could more graphically illustrate the gravity of the crisis engulfing NewsCorp than that its chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch should take the drastic step of closing his most profitable newspaper and the one – to boot – he started out with back in 1969. The suspicion lingers that a skeleton NoW staff will be retained to flesh out a 7-day version of The Sun. “The Sun on Sunday” has long been rumoured as a cost-cutting project. How typical of Murdoch that he should turn a disaster into a publishing opportunity.

UPDATE 7/7/11: Determination not to be the last advertiser at the News of the World has now reached frenzied proportions, as Vauxhall, Virgin Holidays, O2 (£1m), Boots (£800,000) and  Sainsbury’s stampede to the exit with Ford, nPower and Lloyds Banking Group. Morrisons next, I suspect. Will anyone be buying the paper anyway? Newsagents expect a boycott on Sunday.


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