In a week of Leveson revelations, Lord Ashley’s life showed MPs and journalists can co-operate for the common good
What a strange, almost hallucinatory time it has been. At home, we have been coping with the death of my father, Jack Ashley, while watching the extraordinary turmoil at the Leveson inquiry. Amid the blur of kind letters and emails, not to mention 9,000 sympathetic messages on Twitter, I’ve been thinking hard about one political life, and what it meant; and I hope readers will forgive me if I try to use it as a prism through which to analyse the current political crisis.
In a few short months, Lord Justice Leveson has moved on from phone hacking to the wider story of relations between the Tory-led government and the Murdoch empire; and the wider-still issues of the proper, or improper, relationship between the media in general and the political class. David Cameron denies a grand deal or bargain – media support from Murdoch in return for business favours – but polling strongly suggests the public have decided that this lot, at least, are no longer on their side.
My father’s career as a Labour MP, and then a peer, will always be intertwined with how he coped with sudden total deafness when newly elected, in 1967. But his campaigning for more than four decades was full of more general, and urgent, lessons for today’s politicians. And one of them was the right way to deal with journalists.
For it was, after all, a sometime Murdoch newspaper editor with whom he formed a crucial alliance in his most famous campaign, to win compensation for Thalidomide-damaged children from the Distillers Company. In the early 1970s, my father and Harry Evans of the Sunday Times worked together, using parliament, the courts and public opinion to win a long and bitter battle. He would always tell us the real heroes were the families themselves – and remind us that the battle to support the nearly 500 people born with horrific disabilities isn’t over yet.
Yet this remains a classic example of what can happen when politicians and journalists work together. Evans is still one of the best examples of an old-fashioned campaigning journalist who turned his paper into a prime forum for harassing the smug and powerful, and trying to right wrongs on behalf of the relatively powerless. And what happened when his paper, and its sister, were taken over by a certain Rupert Murdoch? Soon afterwards, Evans was pushed out of the Times’s editorial chair in a row over proprietorial interference; Evans demolished Murdoch’s account of this in the Guardian last week.
My father worked with a lot of journalists, along with pressure groups and charities, on a lot of campaigns – to change the laws on disability, the treatment of rape victims, to help vaccine-damaged children, victims of army bullying and of domestic abuse, and many more. He was a charismatic man, and found good reporters and editors to work with in many different organisations. But the problem is that once proprietors are dealing in a regular, close way with prime ministers, their papers are inherently less likely to challenge power, to rage and fight, and therefore to stand up for those who need them most.
It has only recently been revealed that Murdoch held a secret meeting with Margaret Thatcher ahead of his 1981 takeover of the Times and the Sunday Times. That set a powerful precedent: to be a successful leader in this country, you had to do your deal with the greatest media boss of all. Following Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron all did the same; and what we are seeing at Leveson is the unwinding of the consequences of all this.
We should never forget that without the Milly Dowler phone-hacking story, and the relentless pursuit by a Guardian journalist – ridiculed and vilified at the time – all this subterranean dealing would have remained hidden, and I bet that the Murdoch family would have got everything they’d wanted.
But my larger worry, going back to my father’s career, is that it’s almost impossible to have effective parliamentary politics – that is, challenging, probing, campaigning politics – on behalf of outsiders, if the media is a smug insiders’ club. We need a vigorous, plural, independent media or our politics dies too.
And one reason for public suspicion is that, as compared to the Britain of the 70s where Dad fought his key early campaigns, today’s Britain seems much more of a stitched-up country, where the wealthiest and most powerful are in perpetual collusion. This is, unavoidably, about class as well as character. Why did Dad connect so readily to people at the bottom of the heap, in desperate trouble, and why was he so contemptuous of the business bosses and judges he thought stopped them getting justice? It is, of course, a result of the long years he spent as an unskilled labourer working in chemical and copper factories, and before that his childhood in a tiny, leaking house, with no hot water or inside toilet.
He got his break through a trade union scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, even though he had left school at 14. Now we’re told that Labour’s union link is outrageous and corrupt; but what other organisations help get working-class people into parliament? We need a Commons that reflects the country, with a far greater range of backgrounds than today’s – as Neil O’Brien argues on the opposite page – just as we need a genuinely independent media. With strong journalism and MPs who understand what it’s like to struggle, backbenchers really can change people’s lives for the better. Without them, parliament starts to feel like a fig leaf for things-as-they-are – and if that seems too alarmist, look at the polling right now.
It isn’t all bleak, of course. Parliament may have far too few working-class members, but for now it does have a strong group of independent-minded backbenchers, across all parties. And there must be a chance that online journalists and campaigners will fill the gap left by newspapers in thrall to commercial interests, and the terrible cull of local journalism. That, of course, would require more than a day of Twitter trending, or flash-mob enthusiasm: good campaigning means digging, patience, and consistency.
My father’s life showed that MPs do not operate in a parliamentary vacuum. They need to work with networks outside – and this includes good journalists, who don’t have to look over their shoulders at proprietors, or worry about their editors’ chummy chats with ministers. The Leveson inquiry isn’t about criminality, or one minister, or even one proprietor: it’s really about what kind of democracy we still have.