Please Lord Levenson help us grow up

So Rupert Mudoch has got through the first day of his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry – albeit a shortened session and so far the most shocking thing we’ve learned is that he’s really called Keith.

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!


Not hacked off yet

Little did I realise when I was first asked to comment in our regional media on the News International ‘phone hacking allegations that I would still be at it all these months later. More to the point, it struck me after my most recent appearance on BBC WM last night that there is, so far, no end in sight and it’s possible ‘we ain’t seen nothin’ yet’. 
I was there (at very short notice as it happens) to make a brief comment on the resignation of James Murdoch as BSkyB chairman. In his statement announcing the move, Murdoch said: “As attention continues to be paid to past events at News International, I am determined that the interests of BSkyB should not be undermined by matters outside the scope of this company.” He went on: “I am aware that my role as Chairman could become a lightning rod for BSkyB and I believe that my resignation will help to ensure that there is no false conflation with events at a separate organisation.”

Surely that misses the point. Isn’t the reason for his resignation the very fact that there has been ‘conflation with events at a separate organisation’? This is a man widely regarded as having done a good job with BSkyB but so tainted by what went on at ‘a separate organisation’ that he cannot continue. Just having been involved with News International and the old News of the World is enough to raise question over someone’s fitness to chair the broadcaster – and being called Murdoch just helps to pile up the doubts. 

From the outset the Murdochs don’t seem to have played this with their usual surefooted aplomb. First they insisted ‘hackgate’ was the misdemeanour of one rogue journalist (a view the police, let’s not forget, seemed to be happy to go along with at the time) then they were forced to close the News of the World in an attempt to draw a line under the affair. When that failed, James was forced to leave his post as chair of News International in another diversionary move that clearly hasn’t worked (hence yesterday’s decision). 

Who is going to buy the idea that cutting off the lightning rod is going to stop the bolt striking the building. And why should a sideways shuffle prevent one bit of the Murdoch empire taking a hit for the actions of ‘a separate organisation’ when that organisation’s behaviour has damaged the reputation of a whole profession. 
This scandal – and the ensuing Leveson Inquiry  – has already led to high-profile resignations in News International and in the Metropolitan Police. In the next phase of hearings Lord Leveson will turn his attention to the relationship between the press and politicians. Where, as my old gran used to say, will it all end?