Perhaps it was the big build up (who didn’t love Evgeny Lebedev’s Tweet looking forward to Rupert ‘bringing down the Government’?) but the session seemed a little flat, particularly given the firework crackle of son James’s testimony yesterday. That left the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt having to defend himself to MPs this lunchtime and cost his special advisor Adam Smith his job.There is, of course, still the second day of Mr. Murdoch’s evidence to come and this extraordinary story still has plenty of scope for twists and turns to surprise us. So far what began as ‘one rogue reporter’ hacking telephones has grown into a beast that has cost the jobs of senior journalists, like Rebeka Brooks, senior police officers and now a political advisor. I’m not betting yet against a political figure joining that list
What Rupert gave us was more low key, though an equally assured performance. He sought to dismiss suggestions that he and his media empire exercise undue influence over our politicians. He’d liked Tony Blair, thought Gordon Brown was unhinged when he declared war on the Murdoch media but had , he said, never asked a Prime Minister for anything. Then as the astute Robert Jay, Counsel for the Inquiry, pointed out he would never have been so cackhanded as to be that blunt in his approach.
Even though there was nothing to cause immediate fright to any politician, there was nothing in phase one of his testimony that dismissed the sense that there was an unhealthy closeness between our elected representatives and the media – Rupert’s and beyond. We have seen an unsavoury element of political life being peeled like an onion. First, the Daily Telegraph e-mail promising support to David Cameron and pledging not to be just a fairweather friend (The PM may be reflecting on that in the light of some of the paper’s post-Budget coverage); then James Murdoch revealed how many times he had met Mr. Cameron for dinner or breakfast and how things were discussed in passing, and then today Murdoch senior, even as he told us the perception of his influence over politicians irritated him, revealed how he liked meeting political leaders.
It would be naieve to believe that people like Rupert Murdoch don’t expect access to senior political figures but the extent to which it happens will surprise many voters. After the MPs’ expenses scandal none of us expects too much of them, but the idea that they may be scurrying around after media owners and editors for endorsement is at best unedifying and at worst a betrayal of the relationship between us ordinary folk and those we elect to serve us.
There is an important role here for the Lord Justice Leveson. He has to come up with recommendations for the future regulation of the press. Regulations clear and strong enough to prevent – or punish – illegal activity such as ‘phone hacking but which also preserve the ability of journalists to hold public figures to account and expose wrongdoing and hypocrisy. After the evidence of the last few days it is also clear those regulations need to be built on a new, much more mature relationship between the media and our political leaders. We need a strong, independent media free to keep us informed so we can make well-grounded decisions at election times and we need politicians brave enough to move away from the apron strings of nanny press baron to leave us to make those judgements even if they may not like the outcome. Let’s all be grown ups!