Murdoch’s appearance before Leveson was merely a sideshow – the real problem is now what the lord justice is going to do about Jeremy Hunt
Think of Leveson in the Strand as a giant stage set. Watch stars of the media, policing and politics tiptoe across its boards. Join the joyous debate, only last week, about whether Rupert Murdoch is ravening beast or befuddled buffer. Swap tweets with Baron Prescott and friends asking: is this Watergate all over again? It’s all a terrific, absorbing show for the scribbling classes. But then calm down for a day or three and ponder more serious things. First among them, to wonder whether this monster of an inquiry – at a cost even theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh might flinch at – quite fit for whatever purpose it is now deemed to serve?
It was set up, remember, by an embattled prime minister anxious to defuse the Coulson crisis. No Andy, no hacking horror close to No 10 and not so much of a problem. A little tap-dancing around parliament saw News International’s crass cover-up laid at the Press Complaints Commission’s door and Lord Justice Leveson charged with constructing a new regulatory framework for newspapers (including those which had exposed the scandal in the first place).
But on the way to the Strand, police and political modules got thrown into the pot. And now see what a bubbling mess of a stew we have left. Here’s Rupert Murdoch, 81, in the dock of non-Wapping media opinion. What did he know about phone hacking and cop bribing? Answer please without mentioning Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks, or anyone else on Scotland Yard’s stretching arrest list. Not surprisingly, the old boy dumps on assorted ex-employees, and who come roaring back at him. Not surprisingly, only a warped, contorted stab at truth emerges.
It’s all boisterous melodrama, sure enough, but it has nothing to do with Leveson’s supposedly central task of suggesting fresh forms of press superintendence to David Cameron and, in the first instance, Jeremy Hunt, his culture secretary and commissioner of the whole Strand extravaganza. Alas, poor Jeremy! The inquiry’s judicial powers require News International to hand over anything interesting for a quick sift.
Here are 163 pages of emailings back and forth between James Murdoch’s master lobbyist and Hunt’s special adviser that, in their matey tone and sometimes in the information they give, seem to undermine the culture secretary’s quasi-judicial standing in the hot potato case of buying up all of BSkyB. At which point, with Westminster in full uproar mode, Leveson gets responsibility for sorting out Hunt’s future as well.
This is not sensible. He doesn’t want it. The whole show is creaking under the weight of its own contradictions.Is Hunt doomed to trawl through the entire, miasmic BSkyBusiness in a Strand courtroom with his cabinet future at stake? Is Brian Leveson doomed to divert an already side-tracked inquiry by interviewing every possible witness in this farrago and producing (sometime in late autumn at best) an individual verdict that has little to do with his terms of reference?
You might say it’s necessary. After all, it was his inquiry that unleashed the emails. But then – and this is the ever more evident point – his terms of reference are a political botch of utterly conflicting instructions. Can the report, when presented to him, tell Hunt to fall on the nearest sword? Will it tell David Cameron – himself a TV company lobbyist in earlier days – that his entire structure of governance and control is rotten?
Maybe Hunt should be investigated separately under a ministerial code that still makes the PM the ultimate arbiter of his fate. Maybe Cameron himself should be so investigated. Maybe yet another inquiry is needed here, to sit alongside Filkin on the police and John Whittingdale (this week). Maybe Leveson, having started this email hare running, should – in all fairness – finish the race. Maybe, as some distraught politicians now urge, any responsibility for media mergings should be taken away from ministers and given to someone or something “independent” (as in “appointed” by the selfsame lot to begin with).
There’s a deeper truth here that can’t be tweeted aside amid so much endemic muddle. Some absolutely lousy things happened at the News of the World, and inside News International, during the last 10 years (at least). Management, perhaps because the ageing boss over the water couldn’t cope any longer, was murky, going on vestigial. Trusted servants betrayed that trust. A re-energised Yard is finally on that case. The power of Rupert – real or alleged – is broken. He’s a blot and a chump. His prospects of handing over to his kids are gone. Full BSkyB ownership is beyond News Corp’s grasp now. The back door to Downing Street is closed, forever.
Of course people – often competitors – who hate Murdoch and what he stands for (“the Le Monde-reading classes” as he’d say) aren’t inclined to settle there. There’s a natural tendency to dance on his grave – and, over at the BBC, to fill yet another hour of Newsnight. Cameron should probably go down on his knees every morning and say ‘thank you, Lord’ for mysteriously intervening via Milly Dowler and stopping the Sky deal in its tracks. But the question of what comes next, for regulating the press which is also – on current form, from MPs’ expenses to hacking – the regulating of our democracy, is much the most important task left on Leveson’s plate.
Murdoch senior was right about one thing last week in his meandering dissertation on newspaper decline and internet expansion (led by giants like Google, Apple and Amazon, whose might dwarfs News Corp and who seem to pay even less tax). Too much old law kills new thinking. See how bizarrely irrelevant monopolies legislation has just slain local newspapers in Kent. And too much rigidly systemic regulation on the emerging Leveson model will surely inflict similar imbecilities. See how statutory this and that now drop into Strand conversation whenever bloggers are mentioned.
Rupert Murdoch is the past. Last week slammed the lid on him. Now, can we concentrate on raising the curtain for all our futures?