1. The 1992 general election
1.1 The Labour Party’s media strategy going into the 1992 election campaign did not aim to win over hostile sections of the media and was positively averse to engaging with News International (NI) in particular. It included some manifesto pledges on media policies to which elements of the press were explicitly opposed, including on implementation of the recommendations in the Calcutt Report and the establishment of an urgent inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commissions into the concentration of media ownership.1
1.2 There was, in the event, significant negative coverage of both the Labour Party in general and its Leader, now Lord Kinnock, in particular throughout the election campaign. Even the victor of that election, Sir John Major, described it as both “a pretty crude campaign” against Lord Kinnock and “over the top”.2 The Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, a Labour candidate at the election, described the experience in his evidence in these terms:3
“Now, what the Sun was doing in the 1992 election was working over each senior member of the Labour front bench and this had an effect, and if you were on the receiving end of it, it felt like power. It had an effect in my constituency. I remember doing an open-air meeting that Wednesday and you could feel support falling away, and my majority scarcely moved, although it did not reflect the national swing”.
1.3 At the climax of The Sun’s election coverage were two particularly negative and personal headlines directed against Lord Kinnock. “Nightmare on Kinnock Street” was followed, on election day itself, by the headline: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”.4 As is well known, Labour lost the 1992 election but tabloid coverage in the years running up to election, and in particular The Sun’s coverage during the campaign, has remained the subject of controversy ever since.
1.4 Kelvin MacKenzie, then the editor of The Sun, famously proclaimed through a headline after the Conservative victory that: “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”.5 Rupert Murdoch distanced himself from that; in his own words, he gave Mr MacKenzie “a hell of a bollocking”.6 Mr Murdoch said this:7
“I just thought it was tasteless and wrong for us. It was wrong in fact. We don’t have that sort of power. I think if you – well, you can’t do it now, but if you go after an election and you see a newspaper that’s taken a very strong line, particularly the Sun, and ask their readers how did they vote, there would be no unanimity. It may be 60/40 one way...”
1.5 Lord Kinnock, in his resignation speech delivered on 13 April 1992, blamed his defeat on the newspapers which had supported the Conservatives, quoting the former Conservative Treasurer who had said that: “The heroes of this campaign were Sir David English, Sir Nicholas Lloyd, Kelvin MacKenzie and the other editors of the grand Tory press”. Lord Kinnock warned: “This was how the election was won and if the politicians, elated in their hour of victory, are tempted to believe otherwise, they are in very real trouble next time”.
1.6 None of the witnesses who gave evidence to the Inquiry suggested that The Sun’s support for the Conservatives had in fact been decisive, although many, especially in other parties, thought that it was very influential. Alastair Campbell put it this way:8
“I am not sure if it can be claimed, as the Sun did after the Tories won in 1992, that “it was the Sun wot won it,” but there is no doubt in my mind that the systematic undermining of Labour and its leader and policies through these papers, actively encouraged and fed with lines of attack by Tory HQ, was a factor in Labour’s inability properly to connect with the public, and ultimate defeat.”
1.7 The Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP’s analysis was similar: “The Labour Party went on to receive extremely hostile coverage from newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch. We then lost the 1992 General Election”.9 During the course of her oral evidence she made clear that she thought that there were also other factors at play: “... I’m sure there were many things which contributed to us not getting elected in 1992 over and above the bombardment that we’d received from the Murdoch press .. .”10
1.8 Mr Straw observed: “Few of us who took part, for example, in the 1992 General Election are in any doubt that the Sun’s approach lost us seats. That was their purpose, and it is disingenuous for any now to deny this”.11 Even more succinctly: “It did contribute to our defeat. I took that as power”.12
“How much did that affect the election? Labour Party mythology has it that it made a huge difference. I don’t actually think so. I think the news coverage in 1992 and 1997 accelerated a trend that existed. I do not think it changed the result of either of those General Elections. I think we would have won in 1992; we would have lost in 1997.”
1.10 Whether or not press coverage affected the outcome of the election, it is clear that the experience had an impact on the perceptions of politicians as to the importance of political press coverage; and those perceptions have subsequently been a key factor in the media strategies of political parties. The Rt Hon Tony Blair put it this way:14
“Q. I return to the issue of spin. I think we agreed that it was borne out of the unfair treatment, in your eyes, of Mr Kinnock’s Labour Party, which required a disciplined and possibly a ruthless handling of the press. Is that right? “A. Yeah, but you see I draw a very clear distinction between what I would say is a very tough professional media operation and ruthless handling of the press in the sense of – when I read this stuff about how people felt bullied and harassed and intimidated and so on ...”
1.11 Mr Campbell recounted an active choice to change the Labour Party’s approach to what he described as the Murdoch papers.15 He described Rupert Murdoch as the single most important media figure and said that “it would have been foolish on our part not to have sought to build some sort of relationship with him .”16
“...once Mr Blair had come into office in 1994, we all shared the same view, that if humanly possible, without completely compromising ourselves, we should do our best to get the papers on side. It was better than the alternative. This was because I’d been through 18 years of opposition.”
“Q. May I sort of turn that around and say, well, those manifesto commitments which we saw in 1992 were singularly absent in 1997, and there was a reason for their being absent, which was not to estrange or inflame or otherwise discourage the Murdoch press. Is there force in that observation? “A. Well, I think it goes back to what Tony Blair said in what became known as his 2007 “feral beast”speech, is that we, after all those years in opposition and believing that we wanted to get into government to do things on the health service and on unemployment and on whole range of things, that it felt necessary to do more assuaging, neutralising, courting, that was the decision that was taken, and that did feel like it was necessary.”
“Between 1994-1997, we did change Labour’s policy on media ownership. However it should be remembered that this policy was itself partly a product of the terrible relations between the Labour Party and the Murdoch press and the unions and that press. My view was and remains that there should be no presumption in favour of any media organisation or against it; that foreign ownership should not be regarded differently from ownership by British nationals; and that the best way of dealing with undue interference through size whether within one medium or across media, is through competition policy. So it would be fair to say that had we kept that policy, it would have been a problem with the Murdoch press. But there were sound objective reasons for changing it. I can’t recall any conversations on it with anyone from the Murdoch media.”
1.15 Mr Blair rejected the suggestion, made by Lance Price, who worked first as Mr Campbell’s deputy from 1998, and then as New Labour’s Director of Communications between 2000 and 2001, that the old media policy was quietly dropped within six months of his (Mr Blair’s) trip to Hayman Island in 1995, where he met Mr Murdoch, although he readily accepted that had he maintained the old policy then: “it would definitely have been a problem with the Murdoch media group in particular ...”.20
“...I mean, I’d taken the view I was not going to have the Labour Party coming back into power after 18 years with a programme of change for the country and having the centrepiece of the programme being issues to do with media ownership. I thought that would have been a distraction and wrong”.
“My view, rightly or wrongly, was that if, in those circumstances, I had said, “Right, I’ve decided what I’m going to do is take on the media and change the law in relation to the media”, my view is – and I think it’s still my view, actually – that you would have had to clear the decks. This would have been an absolute confrontation. You would have had virtually every part of the media against you in doing it, and I felt the price you would pay for that would actually push out a lot of the things I cared about, and although, you know – I think I say towards the end of my statement: although I think this is an immensely important question, I mean, I don’t, in the end – not for me at any rate, as the Prime Minister, was it more important than the health service or schools or law and order. “...If you take this on, do not think for a single moment you are not in a long, protracted battle that will shove everything else to one side whilst it’s going on”.
1.18 Speaking directly about the lessons and experience of 1992, Mr Blair said: “...I went through that 1992 election. I remember it. It was etched on my memory, and yes, I was absolutely determined that we should not be subject to the same onslaught”.23
“The Labour party was haunted by the treatment Neil Kinnock received as Labour leader and they were absolutely determined not to go through that again. They wanted a fair hearing. If they couldn’t get the endorsement they wanted a more level playing field; as you know, in the end they got the endorsement”.
1.20 Adam Boulton noted not only the Labour Party’s close attention to the media after 1992 but also that the Conservatives later adopted a similar closeness to the press. Asked whether he agreed with the words of Mr Blair: “...We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour in courting, assuaging and persuading the media...” he said:25
“Yes, I would. As I also say, there was a reason for it, as has been cited elsewhere in the Inquiry. The soreness which Labour felt about the 1992 treatment of Neil Kinnock and the feeling that they needed to turn the media around if they were going to have a chance of getting their message across in 1997, but it struck me reading that again how remarkably close that is to some of the remarks that the current Prime Minister made last summer”.
1.21 There was open hostility between sections of the press and the Labour Party during the 1980s, most acutely in the Labour Party’s refusal to deal with NI as a result of the Wapping dispute. It was to a degree personal. Sections of the press used the power of personal attack and deployed both a sustained campaign of negative and aggressive personal coverage over a long period as well as a more concentrated burst during the 1992 General Election.
1.22 Labour’s 1992 election manifesto contained policies which reflected (on Mr Blair’s own analysis) the poor relationship between Labour and sections of the press, especially NI. The pledge to implement Sir David Calcutt’s proposals if self-regulation failed put the party at odds with much of the press, and the promise to call for an urgent inquiry by the MMC into media ownership were, however principled, consciously oppositional.
1.23 It is worth repeating the real difficulty in determining precisely what impact the negative coverage of Labour politicians had on the outcome of the 1992 election. People do not necessarily agree with the opinions which they read in their newspapers, or they may already be of the same view and need no persuasion. However, it would be idle to suppose that sustained negative coverage had no effect. It is reasonable to conclude that political coverage can influence voting, although it is important not to overstate the degree to which it can or does do so.
1.24 Perhaps of even greater importance, and certainly easier to discern, is the impact of the 1992 election on perceptions about the power of the press to influence the fortunes of political parties. A belief that improved relations with the press were vital to future election prospects is agreed to have been a cornerstone of New Labour’s approach, a lesson learned from Lord Kinnock’s treatment by sections of the press.
1.25 The impact of personally hostile media coverage is not exclusively a Labour Party issue. Conservative politicians also bear in mind the fate of Sir John Major’s Government which, in time, came to attract coverage every bit as negative and personal as that which Lord Kinnock had endured.
2. The 1997 general election
“... by the time I took over the leadership of the Labour Party, we’d lost four elections in a row, We’d actually never won two consecutive full elections in our history ... I went through that 1992 election. I remember it. It was etched on my memory and ... I was absolutely determined that we should not be subject to the same onslaught ... We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging and persuading the media”.
2.2 He described this new era as one of “courting, assuaging and persuading the media”.28 Mr Blair confirmed that he met Rupert Murdoch on at least one occasion before becoming leader; this was on 15 September 1994 at a private dinner at a restaurant.29 Although Mr Murdoch could not recall the dinner, he accepted in evidence that much of what was attributed to him by a number of sources sounded plausible.30 From this it may be possible to infer that Mr Blair took the opportunity to explain that the Labour Party would not undertake an inquiry into cross-media ownership, and also the state of policy on the statutory recognition of Trade Unions.31
2.3 The new strategy appears to have had almost immediate effect. Within just a few days of his election as Labour Party Leader, it was being reported that Rupert Murdoch had stated publicly that he ‘could imagine’ backing Blair32 (Mr Murdoch’s evidence was that although he did not remember saying this, it was quite possible that he had).33
2.4 On 27 July 1994,34 Mr Blair appointed Mr Campbell (then assistant editor at Today, a NI newspaper)35 as part of his political and election strategy team. Mr Campbell played a prominent role in repositioning the relationship of the Labour Party with the press.36 He became in due course the Prime Minister’s Chief Press Secretary in May 1997 and on 15 July 2000 was appointed Director of Communications and Strategy at No 10.
2.5 Mr Campbell himself stated in evidence that, as soon as he was appointed in 1994, he set himself the objective of ensuring that Mr Blair did not suffer the same fate as Lord Kinnock. That this meant taking a more strategic and proactive approach to communication and relationships with the media.37 He said this about it:38
“In addition to the historic bias against Labour, the Wapping dispute had given rise to real bitterness between parts of the media and the Labour Party, to the extent that the Party did not communicate with, for example, some of the Murdoch titles. Also other titles like the Mail and the Express were so supportive of the Tories, and hostile to Labour, that our people tended to avoid them. We changed that approach very deliberately. Part of our message was that there was no part of public opinion we were afraid of and where we would not take the basic arguments of Labour”.
“Now, part of that was to reassure the media that we weren’t the same Labour Party, and that, in a sense, trying to persuade them that we were no longer the toxic brand of the 1980s you could describe as an attempt to sort of neutralise, to sort of take the roughest edges off their hostility to us”.
“... I would strongly defend that decision. It is important to understand that the Murdoch press (a) represented a large part of the media with large numbers of readers i.e. voters and (b) had been viscerally hostile to the Labour Party. The fact is I was changing the Labour Party to become New Labour ... The continued hostilities between the Murdoch Group and Labour had no rationale to it given our changes and the fact that the Conservative Government was running out of steam. Actually, my speech held closely to all the policies I believed in”.
“I had a minimum and maximum objective. The minimum objective was to stop them tearing us to pieces and the maximum objective was, if possible, to open the way to support. Now, actually, the speech I gave – yes, of course you had to balance it very carefully. There’s no policy I changed, and actually in the speech I went out of my way – and we were very careful about this – to make sure I emphasised support for minimum wage, union recognition, pro-European position, increases in public investment, all of which may not have been what they wanted to hear. On the other hand, what I felt perfectly comfortable in doing was saying – and this I was perfectly comfortable with saying – “This Labour Party is going to be a party of aspiration, not merely redistribution. It’s going to be a party that’s going to appeal to the emerging aspirant working class. It’s going to be a party that is essentially about creating a meritocratic society and expanding opportunity and it’s not going to go back to the old ways”.But that was a message I was determined to give to the country. ... But what is important, I think, to emphasise ... I actually did have in all the things that we were committed to they wouldn’t like. I was also – because I was having to watch my other audience as well”.
“I distinctly recall Mr Blair’s address at our conference on Hayman Island. He spoke convincingly of the ability of a new Labour Party to energise Britain. I do recall believing that Mr Blair and the policies he advocated could help revitalise Britain, and sharing that view with newspaper editors at the conference, who were also impressed by Mr Blair’s speech”.
“If our flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, then I suspect we will end up making love like porcupines, very, very carefully”.
2.11 The different perceptions and perspectives on the dynamics of this interaction interested the Inquiry. Mr Murdoch was keen to impress on the Inquiry a view that all the power and influence lay with politicians, but Mr Blair’s evidence and autobiography were very different.44 He spoke of feeling ‘this pretty intense power ’ in the relationship (although Mr Murdoch was not mentioned by name in this context).45
“As for the ‘value’ to me of these meetings, my view is that if an editor or publisher is invited or otherwise has an opportunity to meet with a head of government or political leader, you go...”Mr Blair:47
“Again, now, it seems obvious: the country’s most powerful newspaper proprietor, whose publications have hitherto been rancorous in their opposition to the Labour Party, invites us into the lion’s den. You go, don’t you?”
2.13 Shortly after the Hayman Island speech, on 17 and 21 July 1995, editorials were published in The Sun which were broadly supportive; Mr Blair, it was said, “has vision, he has purpose and he speaks our language on morality and family life”.48 But Mr Murdoch’s evidence recalled that the editorials also noted that a number of questions about Mr Blair’s policies remained unanswered at that stage.
2.14 Shortly before the 1997 election, Mr Blair wrote two articles in The Sun about the Labour Party’s commitment to a referendum on the Euro: “I’m a British Patriot” on 17 March 1997 and “My Love for the Pound” on 17 April 1997. Mr Campbell recalled that it had been made clear to him by the editor of The Sun that, if Mr Blair were to emphasise the point in these articles that there would be no entry into the Euro without a specific referendum on the issue, and that he understood people’s fears about a so-called European super-state, this was likely to be the final piece of the jigsaw before Mr Murdoch agreed that the paper would back the Labour Party at the election.49
2.15 Mr Campbell and Mr Blair both emphasised to the Inquiry that they did not tailor their policies to seek favour from the proprietor of The Sun. Instead, they sought to highlight those parts of Labour Party policies which might appeal to Sun readers.50 Mr Campbell noted, as an example, that holding a referendum on the Euro was already official policy long before The Sun made the request it did.51 In other words, there was alignment. There were also ‘concessions in rhetoric’ .52
2.16 The landslide victory of New Labour in 1997, and the decisive defeat of Sir John Major, have been widely analysed. Policies, personalities and the public mood on the one hand, and the press on the other, were all in the same place. The press no doubt both reflected and affected public opinion, in immeasurable proportions. Mr Murdoch generally backed the winning side (although he also stated that he sought to judge the candidates on the issues, not on whether they were likely to win).53 Mr Campbell put it this way:54
“Again, I do not believe that the papers swung the result, though they may have helped increase the majority because of the sense of momentum we were able to gather. I believe the Sun backed us because they knew we were going to win: we did not win because they backed us. But it is certainly the case that we very deliberately set out to get our voice and our arguments heard in papers normally hostile to us, and that this had the positive political impact we sought.”
Q. “If he thinks we’re going to win, he’ll go easy on us, but if he thought we could lose, he would turn on us.” He [Mr Blair] added: “If the press misbehave badly during the election campaign, I will stop everything for two days and we’ll have a debate about what they’re up to, who owns them, the lot.” Then Mr Mullin: “Did you say that to Murdoch?” And your answer: “Not in so many words.” Is that an accurate gist then of your conversation with Mr Mullin?
A. I think it is. I mean, as I say, this is going back 18 years or 17½ years now, but certainly that was my attitude. I think now, by the way, I would have a slightly different view. In other words, I think – there was a view of Rupert Murdoch, which I think Paul Keating speaks to the same effect, which is that he just backs the winner. My view now is it’s not as simple as that actually. There are very strong political views and those actually do come first, I think, or put it like this: they’re equal first, let’s say, with whatever interests he feels in being on the winning side or the losing side, and – you know, so I’m not – my view of this now is if he’d been persuaded – I mean, it looked as if we were going to win, so you didn’t have to be a genius to think we had a good chance of winning, although when you’ve lost four a row, by the way, you never think it’s that clear. So I’m not sure I would have the same view now about that, but that may well have been what I said to Chris and to – and yes, look, if I’d ended up in a situation where they turned on me, I would have had to fight back. You know, there’s no – that would have been the only recourse. And we weren’t – in 1992, we weren’t really in a position where we were able to fight back, but this time we would have”.
3. Prime Minister blair: 1997 – 2007
3.1 Mr Blair took an early step, by way of the Civil Service Amendment Order in Council 1997, to appoint Mr Campbell to an unprecedented position, a political or Special Advisor role with the power to instruct permanent civil servants.56 An indication of the considerable importance attached to news management strategies in the early years of the administration, it proved in the end to have been a highly controversial step, which has not been subsequently repeated. Lord O’Donnell viewed the matter in this way:57
“... [this amendment] blurred those lines between what a special adviser does and what civil servants do, and I think, with the benefit of hindsight, it didn’t work as well as it should have done because it created the idea that the civil servants were obeying some rules by someone who was politically appointed, which meant that they also would be politically biased, and so it ... I don’t think it was a good idea. I was very pleased when it was abandoned, and I did advise that it should be abandoned, and that’s very good. I don’t think it’s an experiment we will try again, I hope”.
3.3 Mr Campbell told the Inquiry that many of the other changes relevant to relations between Government and the media made by Mr Blair during his time as Prime Minister were designed to ensure that politics, and media coverage of it, was more ‘on the record’, in an effort to make politics more accessible to the public.59 These included ‘lobby’ briefings both being put on the record and made available online, monthly Prime Ministerial press conferences, and the agreement that Mr Blair would attend select committees in addition to answering Prime Minister’s Questions. These changes addressed the more formal aspects of the relationship between the press and politicians; not all of them were popular on the press side. Adam Boulton said:60
“After 2003 Tony Blair attempted to restore media relations by establishing regular monthly news conferences. He honoured these punctually even when the chosen date coincided with a ’crisis’. However, they were never popular with the press who felt the electronic media benefitted disproportionately and neither Brown nor Cameron have continued with regular extended news conferences.”
“My view was this: I, as say, took a strategic decision that this was not an issue that I was going to take on ... when I came to office ... there was a whole set of things we wanted to do. My view, rightly or wrongly, was that if in those circumstances, I had said ‘Right, I’ve decided what I’m going to do is take on the media and change the law in relation to the media”, my view is that – and I think it’s still my view actually – that you would have had to clear the decks. This would have been an absolutely major confrontation. You would have had virtually every part of the media against you doing it, and I felt that the price you would pay for that would actually push out a lot of the things I cared more about”.
“We’d ... been out of power for 18 years. We got into a rhythm which is very much the rhythm of opposition. So we were still, as it were, campaigning, you know, in the first few months, possibly the first year of government, but frankly after that time, you got into a proper rhythm of government and we had a very strong media operation...”.
“I don’t make any apology for the changes we made in opposition because they helped us to win. I don’t make apologies for the changes we made in government because they helped us to communicate more effectively and I think that helped the Prime Minister to govern more effectively. What I do accept is that at times, we probably were too controlling, that at times we did hang on to some of the techniques of opposition when we should have dumped them at the door of Number 10, but I’d also ask you to bear in mind the sheer volume of issues we were expected to deal with, be on top of. 24/7 media means just that. You are dealing with this 24 hours a day at a time when, in my case, also trying to be in charge of overall strategy as well”.
3.7 The issue which has been much analysed subsequently is the extent to which the transition from Opposition to Government ought properly, in the public interest, to be reflected in distinctive and observable differences in the conduct of relations between politicians and the press. As Lord Mandelson put it:64
“Because of the particular and specific public duties of a minister, and the requirement for these to be carried out in a transparent and accountable manner, my strictures would apply more to government than opposition politicians, but not exclusively. And, of course, the circumstances of a minister’s job are very different from opposition. The intensely scrutinised fishbowl world of government places incredible demands on the time, energy and focus of those who inhabit it. Ministers have less and less time in the day for policy deliberation and formulation because of media (as well as parliamentary) demands. On the other hand, politicians – ministers in particular – have greater opportunities than ever to communicate directly with electorates.”
“Though the press largely turned against him at various stages of his premiership, and some continue to campaign relentlessly against him even now, we did have a fairly benign media environment for some years, and by the time they turned, most of the public knew him well enough to have a fairly settled view”.
“I think Mr Blair ... rescued and made good Labour’s relations with the media. I think he was two or three years into government and they started taking a further dive, and climaxed, in a way when they became their worst at the time of the Iraq War”.
3.10 The personal dimension of the relationship is, again, an interesting one. Mr Blair took the view that, as time wore on, he, and more particularly his family, were often unfairly subjected to personal intrusion and attack. Although the Blairs were friendly with the Rothermeres, he cited the Daily Mail as being, from his perspective, particularly personal in this respect. He said:67 68 “The fact is, if you fall out with the controlling element of the [newspaper] ... you are then going to be subject to a huge and sustained attack. The [newspaper] for me – they’ve attacked me, my family, my children, those people associated with me, day in, day out, not merely when I was in office but subsequent to it as well. So that is – and they do it very well, very effectively, and it’s very powerful ... With any of these big media groups, you fall out with them and you watch out, because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens and my view is that what creates this situation in which these media people get a power in the system that is unhealthy and which I have felt, throughout my time, uncomfortable with”.
3.11 In May 1997, the relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch was not close; they had only met on a handful of occasions and there were references in Mr Campbell’s diaries to Mr Blair’s ambivalence about such meetings ( “...he felt that there was something unpleasant about newspaper power and influence”), although he recognised their importance and value.69 The relationship grew closer although, on Mr Blair’s account, did not develop into personal friendship until after 2007 by which time he had left office.70
“It is also arguably the case, however, that personal relationships between Mr Blair, Mr Brown and Rupert Murdoch became closer than was wise in view of the adverse inference drawn from the number of meetings and contacts they had.”
...but the relationship is one in which you feel this – this pretty intense power and the need to try to deal with that...’that is to say by managing rather than confronting it,73 by building a relationship with Mr Murdoch and others within NI. This entailed meetings and contact in private as well as in an official context.
3.14 Mr Blair’s relationship with Rebekah Brooks may well have been warmer, when he was in power, than his relationship with Mr Murdoch. Although Mr Blair was careful to point out that Mrs Brooks was not a key decision maker within the company,74 he accepted her characterisation of him being ‘a constant presence’ in her life.75 Mr Blair also accepted that, after his third election victory in 2005, both Mrs Brooks and Mr Murdoch were a sympathetic pair of ears in an increasingly hostile media landscape.76 As with Mr Murdoch, Mr Blair said his personal friendship with Mrs Brooks did not really develop until after he left office: as he put it, when free from the constraints of power.77
“I mean, if you just look at the big policy decisions we took, the biggest in the media sphere is probably the rise of the BBC licence fee. They weren’t terribly happy about that. Ofcom, I think Mr Murdoch said in his evidence, not terribly happy about that. He tried to take over Manchester United and was blocked. The digital switch, there were differences. ITV, Channel 5 – there were lots of areas where you’d be hard- pressed to say that the Murdochs and the Murdoch businesses were getting a good deal out of the Labour government.”
3.16 Again, although the party changed its policy in relation to the Euro notwithstanding Mr Blair’s sympathy in principle with the idea of entering the single currency, the fact that the eventual Government position aligned with Mr Murdoch’s is explicable by reference to very many objective factors.
3.17 The perception of influence has, however, been a persistent point of debate. In March 1998, Mr Murdoch confirmed to The Times that he had requested Mr Blair to ask the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, whether the Italian Government would allow Mr Murdoch to acquire Mediaset, Italy’s leading commercial television network. It should be noted that Mr Murdoch’s intention was not that Mr Blair seek to persuade his Italian counterpart to waive the bid through, in obvious contravention of EU and domestic law, but rather that Mr Blair ascertain whether it was worth his making a formal bid, given that he was not an Italian or EU national. The acquisition did not in the event proceed.
3.18 Mr Blair confirmed that he did speak to Mr Prodi about Mr Murdoch’s proposed acquisition of Mediaset, but that the call had come from Mr Prodi himself and had not been initiated by Mr Blair. He said he had asked about the proposed acquisition, and Mr Prodi had communicated to him that he wanted an Italian purchaser for Mediaset. Mr Blair explained that he would have done the same for anyone with substantial British interests:79
“... the call was initiated from Romani Prodi, and basically I ... raised the issue of whether the idea of having someone from the outside come and own part of Mediaset would be resented or not. He gave me an answer and I can’t remember how it was relayed back, but I’m sure it was. But my point is that I would have done that for anyone with substantial British interests. I would have done that if another media group had asked me to do it.”
“The call from Prodi was not about [the proposed acquisition] ... It was about something completely different, and Prodi had asked for us not to brief on it... Rupert Murdoch had mentioned this company to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister, as I recall – we did have a discussion about whether there was anything wrong in him raising it. In the end he didn’t raise it until this phone call came along on something else and he mentioned it and Prodi said words to the effect that Murdoch’s wasting his time and I don’t think it went any further”.
3.20 Whether Mr Blair would have telephoned Mr Prodi to intervene on Mr Murdoch’s behalf had the latter not telephoned him first on another matter is unclear. In any event, taking full account of the fact that Mr Murdoch was seeking very limited benefit from the intervention, what may be more important is what can be inferred from the fact that Mr Murdoch was able to ask the Prime Minister to make the enquiry in the first place.81
3.21 The war in Iraq was a landmark event in Mr Blair’s political fortunes. Some commentators82 have argued that Mr Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq was influenced by Mr Murdoch’s firm and enthusiastic views on the subject. Mr Blair rejected that suggestion:83
“I disagree completely with Paul Dacre’s assertion over Iraq. I had a view about this issue. I was prepared to lose a vote and resign over it. I had taken a position since 9/11 to stand with the US. I strongly believed it was right to remove Saddam Hussein. It is correct I spoke to Rupert Murdoch in the days leading up to the vote. I can’t recall at whose instigation. I would have obviously wanted to explain what I was doing and why to the Head of Media Group that was most disposed to support the action; but I had long since made up my mind on it and the notion that I required “lobbying” by him or anyone else is plain wrong. And I have no doubt that the Mail would have attacked me whichever course I took”.
“Look, this is a huge issue, obviously. I mean, my recollection is that I initiated one of those calls. I actually remember only two, but the records show there were three, although I think they were no more than 45 minutes in total for all three. But you know, I would have been wanting to explain what we were doing, and I did this – I think I had similar calls with the Observer and the Telegraph, and indeed I had a lunch later with the Guardian. So you know, I think that’s – it’s not – I wouldn’t say there’s anything particularly unusual or odd about that when you’re facing such a huge issue. Now none of these calls was particularly long, but they were important... I think with him, probably, I would also have been asking him what the situation was in the US, for example, in Australia, which were also major parts of the coalition. But no, it would not have been about the tone of the coverage. I mean, look, they were supportive of it and that was that”.
3.23 Although Mr Blair did not have a clear recollection of the precise content of these calls (and nor did Mr Murdoch when asked about them), it is interesting that he made time to discuss these issues with a newspaper proprietor speaking from the USA. It is also interesting that Mr Murdoch’s 173 newspapers worldwide all supported the war.
3.24 In his evidence to the Inquiry, Mr Blair explained that although he had considered throughout his period of office that, while he had views about press conduct and standards, addressing them was not a priority, by the time he had come to the end of his term as Prime Minister he had concluded that the issue had become far more pressing.85 On 12 June 2007, approximately two weeks before leaving office, Mr Blair gave a speech on Public Life to the Reuters Institute of Journalism, in which he made some trenchant criticisms of the press, famously describing at least sections of the industry as ‘feral beasts’.
“The media is increasingly and to a dangerous degree driven by ‘impact’... First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light. Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment. It is not enough for someone to have made an error of judgment. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial ... But misconduct is what has impact. Third, the fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out. Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important, than the news itself”.
3.26 He suggested that the “relationship between public life and media [was] ... now damaged in a manner which [required] repair”, that “a way needed to be found” to ensure that the press remained accountable, and that serious concerns about unbalanced reporting would be addressed in the future. He noted that broadcasting, for example, was regulated by Ofcom.87
3.27 The speech was almost universally criticised by the press itself. The Daily Telegraph on 13 June 2007,88 carried a headline “Blair’s Last Enemy: Freedom of Speech” above an article which, while accepting that some of the points that Mr Blair had made were valid, considered his call for reform would “impair freedom of speech and the liberties of the subject ...[and] eventually make them obedient to the government of the day”, and concluded that “... we do find his argument deeply disturbing, founded on false premises and worthy of the strongest refutation”.89
3.28 A Mail Online article of the same date was headlined “The Magnificent Self-Delusion of Mr Blair”.90 It also rejected the idea of statutory regulation, describing such thoughts as “decidedly sinister” and suggested that it was odd for Mr Blair to ‘attack’ the press in this way, as he had “enjoyed for most of his years as Prime Minister a more approving and more docile press than any British leader in living memory”. It went on to assert that “for the most part, the media acted like a great sloppy Labrador which repeatedly bestowed its affections on Mr Blair”.91
3.29 A Guardian leader of 13 June 2007 was headed “Right Sermon, Wrong Preacher”.92 It considered the speech to be a “heartfelt homily” which “deserved a serious response”, but noted that “it is pretty rich to be lectured on such matters by this prime minister who, more than any other, has marginalised parliament through a combination of sofa government, selective leaking and sophisticated media manipulation”. The article concluded:93 “It has been a consistent pattern – witness terror briefings to the Sunday newspapers. Truly, he helped feed the animal he now wants to chain”.
3.30 Mr Campbell confirmed that the issue of addressing press standards had been discussed in 2002 and 2003 but not pursued.94 In an article in the Guardian published in July 2011,95 Lord Mandelson reflected that ‘we were cowed from reforming the media’.
4. Prime Minister Brown: 2007 – 2010
“My efforts were to persuade every media group that what we were doing was serious. Look, we were trying to rebuild the National Health Service, improve our education system, get more police onto the street, legislate for freedom of information. We had agendas on civil liberties, on issues like gay partnerships. All these issues, you needed to have an understanding, at least, on the part of the media, and you needed to talk to them. As for any particular media group, I don’t think I was involved in any sort of way that I would feel uncomfortable about now with any particular media group at all.”
4.2 Mr Brown said that he had few dealings with Rupert Murdoch at this stage, and by implication that close engagement with the press was left to others.97 He also stated that he had no involvement in what he called the ‘particular issue’ of winning the support of The Sun in March 1997.98
4.3 Mr Brown said that he had intended from the start of his premiership to set a new tone in the Government’s relationship with the press. He explained that he was concerned to ensure fair access to Government, including by meeting regularly with all media groups without giving preferential treatment to anyone.
“Mr. Brown comes in and he has good, rather easy relations with the media. It didn’t last, as we know. It took a very significant dive”.
“When I came in in 2007, we had no mandate in our manifesto to propose reform of the media. I did want to make a change, and I did try to move away from what I thought was the excessive dominance of what is called the lobby system, and what really has led to these allegations of spin … I tried to move away from that.
One, we moved away from having a political chief of communications to having a civil servant doing the job. That was to send a message that we were not trying to politicise government information; we were trying to give the information that was necessary for the public to understand what was happening.
We then tried to move back to a system where announcements were made in Parliament. They were not pre-briefed, they were made in Parliament, and therefore that moved away from a system where, to be honest, there were a selected group of people who previously could expect to get early access to information, and I think that’s been a problem with the way the media system has worked, but I’m afraid it was wholly unsuccessful, and I see that the current government have moved back to having a political appointee … and the lobby system remains intact. It’s not the lobby system per se that’s the problem, it’s this small group of insiders who get the benefit of early access to information, and I think that is one of the problems that prevents the greater openness that we have to see.
… The changes that eventually we tried to make we didn’t make successfully I’m afraid because there was a huge resistance to them, and to be honest, if you announce something in Parliament or announced it in a speech, it was not being reported. Unless it had been given as an exclusive to a newspaper, they tended to put in on page 6, rather than page 1.”
“... Under the Brown and Cameron governments there has been a concerted attempt by press colleagues to use the Lobby system to constrain their competitors in the electronic media by imposing artificial embargos on information given in order to benefit print deadlines. This practice is particularly irksome on foreign trips in different time zones and has resulted in several calls to ban Sky News for allegedly breaking the rules. Downing Street habitually takes the side of print on the pathetic ground that ‘we’ve got to give the hacks something to justify the cost of the trip.’”
4.7 In June 2007 the personal relationship between Mr Brown and Mr Murdoch was said to be close, and appears to have become so over the preceding years. However, by September 2009 it had cooled, associated with a shift in political support in The Sun. As Lord Mandelson explained:102
“Q: You presumably detected that shift in support, which was gradual, from Mr. Brown to Mr. Cameron; is that right?
A. Yes. That was during 2009. Yes, during the course of that year.
Q. Had you seen signs of it the previous year in 2008?
A. It was hard not to get Rebekah Wade, or Brooks, as she became, to wax eloquent about the inequities of Gordon Brown and the so-called coup against Tony Blair. She had strong views. I remember on one occasion ... she tipped into this great tirade against Gordon and these others who had brought Tony down and whatever, and Mr. Murdoch said ‘For goodness sake Rebekah, can’t you let history be history? Let bygones be bygones. Let’s not go into that anymore.’”
“News International had a public agenda. What’s remarkable about what happened in the period of 2009 and 2010 is that News International moved away from being – I think it was under James Murdoch’s influence, not so much Rupert Murdoch’s influence, if I may say so – to having an aggressive public agenda ... I don’t think I had a conversation with Mrs. Brooks in the last – I think I had one conversation in the last nine months of our government. It became very clear in the summer of 2009, when Mr. Murdoch junior gave the MacTaggart lecture, that News International had a highly politicised agenda for changes that were in the media policy of this country, and there seemed to me to be very little point in talking to them about this”.
“I felt a personal connection with Gordon Brown. He is Scottish, as was my grandfather, and we spent time discussing the fact that we are both descended from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. He gave me a lovely gift, a book of his father’s sermons. My wife and his also developed a friendship, and my children and his played together... I certainly thought we had a warm personal relationship. ... My personal feelings about Mr. Brown did not change my view that, just as I had earlier concluded that the Conservative Party had grown tired in its approach in 1995, I concluded in 2010 after 13 years of Labour Party rule the country needed a change. I am afraid that my personal relationship with Mr. Brown suffered after The Sun no longer supported him politically. I continue to hold him in high personal esteem.”
“Q: Mr. Murdoch himself describes a warm relationship he had with you. Is this a fair characterisation?
A. Yeah, I think the similar background made it interesting because I think I understood where many of his views came from, and I do also think he’s been, as I said ... a very successful businessman, and his ability to build up a newspaper and media empire, not just in Australia but in two other continents, in America and Europe, is something that is not going to be surpassed easily by any other individual. But I think you have to distinguish again between the views that you have about him as an individual and the red line that I would draw, the line in the sand I talked about, between that and any support for commercial interests ...”
Q: Were you not concerned at ... the signs of The Sun moving away from you to support the Tory Party?
A. I think that happened from the time I became Prime Minister. I’ll be honest. I think they had severe reservations that were expressed in the European campaign, the Broken Britain campaign, their Afghanistan campaign, and I think, as I said, also there was a new agenda that Mr. James Murdoch was promoting about the future of the media policy in Britain. So I was not surprised at all when The Sun – I was perhaps surprised about the way they did it ... but the act of deciding to go with the Conservatives, I think, had been planned over many, many months.”
4.11 On a personal level, Mr Brown was also quite close to Mrs Brooks and his wife, Sarah, was described as a good friend. In the context of coverage of his son’s medical condition, which is considered above,106 Mrs Brooks explained:107
“You have to remember that the– this is 2006. This is only five years later that Mr Brown had ever said anything – that he was in any way concerned about my behaviour, the behaviour of the Sun, how we handled it. Indeed, after 2006, I continued to see them both regularly. They held a 40th birthday celebration party for me. They attended my wedding. I have many letters and kind notes. Sarah and I were good friends...”
4.12 Neither Mr Brown nor Mr Murdoch accepted that their relationship had been ‘too close’ during Mr Brown’s time as Prime Minister, nor that NI had provided support for Mr Brown or his Government in its newspapers on the express or implied basis that the company’s commercial interests would be safeguarded or wider political agendas espoused. Asked about this, and whether there could even have been legitimate concerns about perception, Mr Brown told the Inquiry:108
“No, because the implication is that I would be influenced by Mr. Murdoch was saying about these big issues. I mean, I thought that it was wrong to join the euro ... but I didn’t agree with him on most of these other issues, and the idea that Mr. Murdoch and I had a common bond in policy is, I’m afraid, not correct. Mr. Murdoch was probably more on the flat tax school of policy than in the school of policy that was identified with what we were doing. ...
I have never asked a newspaper for their support directly and I’ve never complained when they haven’t given us their support. I don’t think you should be dependent on people by begging them to support you in this way, and perhaps it’s a failing on my part that I never asked them directly, but I never asked them directly and I never complained to them directly when they withdrew support from the Labour Party”.
4.13 The issue of the so-called ‘pyjama party’ held at Chequers to mark Mrs Murdoch’s fortieth birthday has, however, been cited as evidence of a legitimate cause of concern about the blurring of relationship boundaries between the personal and the conduct of public affairs. Commentators such as Mr Boulton spoke of this in extremely critical terms:109
“Well, I think you can be blamed with hindsight if a lot of people think it looks wrong, and – you know, the famous Wendi Deng pyjama party, for example. I remember a then member of the cabinet telling me about that at the time and I just thought: “This is completely bonkers that this sort of intimacy is being indulged in between the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s wife and a senior proprietor’s wife”, and I thought at the time, you know, it will end in tears. But we all find ourselves in social circumstances or awkward social circumstances which we perhaps have been recruited for, which we didn’t seek out but we’ve ended up in.”
4.14 Mr Brown described himself as having been unfairly and personally hurt by an attack in The Sun following the publication of a handwritten letter he had sent to the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. Email correspondence between Mr Brown and Mr Murdoch ensued,110 following a telephone conversation which took place on or about 10 November 2009.111
4.15 A number of commentators have suggested that Mr Brown had enjoyed a close relationship with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and that, although their political perspectives differed, they shared similar values. About that he said this:112
“A. I didn’t see Mr Dacre that much, as you can see from the records. Mr Dacre and I disagreed about many things on politics. I think he, like me, believes that there should be an ethical basis for any political system and that that is an issue that is not properly addressed both in our media and in our politics, so there is sort of common ground on that, even though we may disagree about what that means in practice. He was personally very kind, as Rupert Murdoch could be personally very kind, when we had difficulties with our child, our first child, and I have not forgotten that. But to be honest, I got no support from the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail was totally against the Labour Party, and when it came to the election, you may see that I had a meeting with Lord Rothermere, as I talked to Paul Dacre, and I said, “Look, you’re entering a situation where you have a party that’s got a relationship with the Murdoch empire and their commercial interests and you should be very wary of it”, and I did warn them that that was one of the problems that was going to happen.
Q. Some have said, including Mr Alastair Campbell, that the Daily Mail was less hostile to you personally when you were chancellor, owing in part to your position on the euro. Do you think that’s a fair comment or not?
A. I don’t know whether it was. Look, one of the huge dividing lines in British politics over the past 10 years has been the euro. Most of the newspapers, of course, were against it. I was in a minority within our government for a very long period of time of being sceptical about the euro. My colleague, Ed Balls, who was the economic adviser to the Treasury at the time and was later a Member of Parliament, did this enormous amount of work that proved to my satisfaction that the euro couldn’t work, but it was a hugely divisive issue. But if the Daily Mail supported the objections that I had to the euro, then that’s absolutely understandable, but I’m afraid to say on just about every other issue they were wholly against us and they wanted to see a Conservative government, as you know.”
“Q: Did he become an ally of Mr. Dacre or vice versa?
A. He was, much to our astonishment, incredibly close to Mr. Dacre. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be a friend of Mr. Dacre; I too sometimes enjoyed Mr. Dacre’s company. I enjoyed his company more than his treatment of me in his newspapers. But he – Gordon and Paul Dacre had a great friendship and I remember Paul Dacre describing to me the virtues of Mr. Brown in contrast to Mr. Blair in fairly graphic terms. And that continued, actually. Even when Gordon, as Prime Minister was, you know, having a really tough time, you know, following the financial crash and what happened to our economy as a result of the financial crash, and the Mail and the Mail on Sunday would be laying into the Labour government left, right and centre, there was always an element, an element, of laying off Mr. Brown and so I think that friendship continued.
Q. Did that friendship, in your view, have any influence on Mr. Brown’s political and policy thinking, particularly in the context of Europe?
A. I think Mr. Dacre’s influence in their friendship would have accentuated his cooling on Europe and the single currency, but that was by no means the only influence. A far greater influence would have been his economic adviser and minister throughout the period, Ed Balls...
Q. Do you think Mr. Brown had an eye on the Daily Mail, Mr. Dacre’s view, in terms of policies for which he was responsible?
A. As Prime Minister, he was responsible, in a sense, for all policies. I’m not sure. In mean, the only thing I can vaguely remember was something to do with data protection. There was an issue to do with data protection.”
4.17 Mr Brown was asked a number of questions about alleged anonymous briefings to journalists which it was put to him were in fact given by Charles Whelan and Damian McBride, who worked for him as his special advisors, the former until 1999 and the latter until April 2009. Mr Brown denied that they gave any such briefings, or that if they did so it was without his knowledge or sanction.114
4.18 Many political commentators have expressed surprise at this evidence. The current Leader of the Opposition has said that the reason Mr Whelan left his position was ‘because of the style of his operation’, and that he had raised a specific concern with Mr Brown about some of Mr McBride’s activities.115
5. Political news management
“The truth becomes almost impossible to communicate because total frankness relayed in the shorthand of the mass media becomes simply a weapon in the hands of opponents.”116
5.1 A thread running through a quantity of the evidence to the Inquiry about the relationship between politicians and the press was the issue of the extent to which politicians attempted to affect (or, put less neutrally, to manipulate) press coverage in their favour, not this time at the level of personal interactions or potential interchanges of influence, but simply by seeking to control what information is released about their thoughts and plans, when, how and to whom.
5.2 This is an issue of interest to the Inquiry, first because it offers the prospect of insight into the dynamics of the relationship and, in particular, where power lies. To the extent that a politician can control the news agenda he or she is in a position of relative dominance in the relationship. It is also of wider interest from the viewpoint of the general public interest because it has a potential to affect the clarity with which the public can understand what is going on and the ability of political journalists to do their job of promoting free debate and holding power to account. It has a potential to have results which are partial, misleading, distorted or placed out of context. On the other hand, it also has the opposite potential, namely to counteract whatever tendencies might exist in the press to drive the political agenda, if not public opinion, in any particular direction.
5.3 It is an issue which is accordingly very hard to deal with objectively. It largely comes down to a matter of standpoint. It is therefore dealt with relatively briefly in this Report. I have nevertheless concluded that there are some interesting patterns which can be picked out, and perhaps one or two lessons which can be drawn.
5.4 The issue probably owes its contemporary prominence to the critique of ‘spin’ associated with the news management techniques of Lord Mandelson and Mr Campbell.117 Both, when invited by the Inquiry to do so, painted a picture instead of a need to counteract unfair press hostility.
5.5 Mr Campbell’s role was certainly one that trod new ground in the history of relations between politicians in Government and the press. Some commentators described it as a wholly different approach to the imparting and presentation of information from Government. Others take a longer view. The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP was able to remind the Inquiry of historical parallels with the Roman Republic.118 Lord Mandelson suggested that the first ‘spin doctor’ was appointed by Clement Atlee, and that Baroness Thatcher’s press spokesman when she was Prime Minister, Sir Bernard Ingham, was as high profile and controversial as Mr Campbell.119
“Now, we’ve had political spin forever. Every politician since the dawn of time will put a gloss on something to ensure that it is presented in the best possible light. We’ve all done it. Everyone does that. But I think there is a distinction between a gloss and a deliberate attempt to deceive in the way in which the news is presented, and my concern was that once you move towards the politicisation of the government information services, which is what it was, you did move into a sphere where the news could be perverted rather than presented accurately and without spin to the media at large.
I think you also saw some other things which journalists are better able to talk about than I, but that they’ve certainly mentioned to me: people being given stories when other people weren’t and presenting them with a particular tilt, so that when the story hit the public news, immediately it had a favourable tilt for the government rather than a neutral or perhaps even a deservedly unfavourable tilt. A whole range of things like that, which I’m sure this Inquiry has heard about, so I won’t tediously run through them all. But in short, I think the straightforward, clear cut certainty of an honest presentation of policy from the information service that was there when you had civil servants presenting it on behalf of the government was lost when you moved to a political information service.
The New Labour perspective
5.7 As indicated above, on 27 July 1994, Mr Blair appointed Mr Campbell to be his press spokesman and jointly responsible with Lord Mandelson for election strategy.121 It was put to Mr Campbell that Mr Blair’s memoirs had referred in terms to the value of appointing a tabloid editor,122 an assessment which he only partly accepted:123
“No, what he said to me when [he] finally approached me was that he wanted somebody that was strategic, that understood the press and that would be able to do the job that he wanted done. So I don’t recall it being particularly he wanted somebody who was from the tabloids, but he wanted somebody that kind of knew that world.”
“I cannot believe we are the first and only government that has ever wanted to put the best possible gloss on what you’re doing. I would be surprised if governments hadn’t done that throughout the ages. That is a completely different thing from saying that you go out to say that things that are deliberately untrue or you bully or harass journalists and so on. I read a lot of things we are supposed to have done. I actually dispute we did those things, very, very strongly. My view is this: I totally understand why there’s a kind of symmetry in being able to say, “Oh, well, the government was spinning and so the media had to react to that”. In my view – but you can take a different one – that’s not what happened.
I mean, the truth is, in 1992 Alastair Campbell wasn’t heard of. If you look at the way that election was covered – and by the time I took over the leadership of the Labour Party, we’d lost four elections in a row. We’d actually never won two consecutive full elections in our history. The longest we’d ever been in power was six years at one go. So – I went through that election. I remember it. It was etched on my memory and yes, I was absolutely determined that we should not be subject to the same onslaught.”
“I think ‘spin’ is a derogatory term. I mean, what we determined to do, really from the time that Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, was to speak as far as possible with a consistent voice, and to – perhaps to go back to your earlier question, to try to ensure that the media understood what it was that we were trying to achieve. So yes, I mean, there was more discipline about what we said, how we said it, who we said it to, than there certainly had been through the many years of Labour in opposition.
Q. Did it lead to a breakdown of trust between the public on the one hand and the politicians on the other?
A. I don’t think it was – I don’t think it was that that led to a breakdown of trust in the public. I do think that we were always too reliant on the support of newspapers, and I think that in the context of everything I’ve said earlier ... our expectations were too high of the degree to which the government’s story could be conveyed through the newspapers.”
5.10 Mr Campbell’s personal, retrospective evaluation was that the critique of ‘spin’ was itself a symptom of the problem which he thought he faced, and that suggestions that the quality of public discourse was corroded were rarely supported by evidence:126
“I can remember, for example, one briefing where, at the end of yet another frenzy and journalists accusing me of lying and the politicians then getting roped in saying I should resign – I can remember saying to all the journalists there in the room: “Right, come on, just say what the lie is and then provide any evidence whatsoever”. And they never could! So just – that in itself is a form of spin. You sent me Peter Oborne’s essay that he did for the British Journalism Review. “Most lobby journalists [he said] have been deliberately misled or lied to by Downing Street”. Followed by zero evidence whatsoever. “New Labour’s culture of deception or manipulation of statistics, secretive smear campaigns....” No evidence whatsoever.”
“Q: Lord Mandelson, one of his concluding observations – ... “There was a great emphasis on managing the media at the expense of managing policy. There was a sense that if you’d got the story right, you’d achieved something and that’s not how government is.” Do you think there’s any validity in that comment?
A. No. I think the policy process was always taken more seriously, but I think we all spent far too much time focussed on – and I speak as the guy who was in charge if this. The politicians spent way too much time worrying about this stuff.”
5.12 Interestingly, there are perhaps echoes of this in Mr Cameron’s public statements in April 2012 about wider failings in politics: the concentration on presentation over the content of the message itself.128
5.13 Mr Blair’s evidence was along similar lines. He accepted that there were problems in the carrying over of the techniques of Opposition into Government. He also accepted that Mr Campbell was somewhat of a ‘combative figure’. Asked about whether there had in fact been bullying or intimidating of journalists, or alternatively the favouring of certain journalists, Mr Blair stated:129
“If you take someone like Andrew Marr, who is a very good journalist, I would be astonished if he felt that he’d been bullied or intimidated. If he did feel that, then I’m sorry about it, and I certainly wouldn’t have known about it. .... But I suspect he is feeding back this thing that has grown up. You know – and also, some of these issues are different. For example, there will always be an interaction with the newspapers. If you’re going to launch a major campaign, and let’s say there’s a particular newspaper that’s been interested in this type of campaign – let’s say you were going to do a big thing on anti-social behaviour. It would make sense to talk to the Mirror, the Sun, maybe, about that. We probably, in the later part, would have hesitated before talking to some of the papers that were utterly hostile for fear of the fact that you would simply have the story distorted in some way, so maybe that gives rise to that.
Briefing against people – I just want to make this clear: I couldn’t abide that. If I ever thought anyone was doing it, I would be absolutely down on them like a ton of bricks. I remember, for example, stories – I remember there were a lot of prominent stories at a certain point in time in relation to the late Mo Mowlam, and how I was very angry because she got a standing ovation at a party conference and we were briefing against her ... It was completely untrue. ...
Q. I think the thesis being advanced is that the masters of the dark arts, whether they be Lord Mandelson or Alastair Campbell, tended to pick on junior reporters or producers... and let off people like Mr. Marr himself.
A. No, that’s my point, really, that in the end they receive this as sort of second-hand – look, I have no doubt that we used to complain strongly if we thought that stories were wrong. You know, I think that’s perfectly legitimate. But I always felt – and I’m probably not the right person to be objective about this at all – but I always felt that their actual pushback against us was because for the first time, the Labour Party ran a really effective media operation, where we were able – and also, by the way, we were in circumstances where, for the first time politically, the Labour Party was able to go on and win successive elections. As I said earlier, we’d never won two successive first terms, never mind three, and I felt you had to have a strong media operation, but I completely dispute that it was part of that to go and brief against ministers”.
“Q. If, as I think you are not, you are not accepting even a kernel of truth in a thesis which may be exaggerated, how is it that this mythology has built up around you that people like Lord Mandelson, Mr Campbell, at your instigation, were the masters of these so-called dark arts?
A. It’s got to the point where I almost hesitate to dispute it with you, because I know these people just say, “Oh, how dare he dispute the fact that actually they were out using black arts and briefing against this person and that person?” The fact is, you know, I never authorised or said to someone: “Go out and brief against” – I hate that type of stuff. It’s the lowest form of politics. It’s just a complete diversion from everything that is important. Now, I don’t doubt, by the way – look, in any system you will have people that will say things or do things or brief things that they shouldn’t be doing, but I simply say to you my view is that the – what I think a part of the media felt – and this is the odd thing, and I used to comment on this sometimes – is that to the outside world, when you’re Prime Minister, you seem as if you’re all powerful, and for that first period of our time in government, it looked as if we were carrying in everything. You know, the opposition were very poor, we didn’t just win one landslide, we then went on to win two, and I think part of the media frankly felt we were far too powerful, we had to be taken on and curbed and so on. But, you know, in relation to this stuff with black arts, look, I don’t – I don’t know whether Peter was doing it or Alastair was doing it, but if they – all I know is that my interactions with them, we were aware that you start doing all that stuff, all it does is blow back on you. I’m a real believer in this regard that what goes around comes around. So for me, the important thing was to have a strong effective media operation. I think that what Alastair produced for us in Downing Street was that, but I think it was a perfectly proper media operation.
Q. I’m really coming back to the point about the draining of the poison, and perhaps who is responsible for the implantation of the poison. If one focuses too much on the press, it might be said that one is arguably missing the wrong target. How about this as a possibility: we might have now a poisonous state of affairs which is a contribution really of both sides to this equation – the press on the one hand, the political classes on the other – and accidentally or unwittingly, they’ve created something which has grown beyond either of their contributions. Is that a possible analysis?
A. Look, it’s certainly a possible analysis, and I’m not saying we don’t bear any responsibility for this situation – don’t misunderstand me – as a political class, but I think if I’m frank about it, the primary responsibility is not having confronted it and dealt with it.”
“I did want to make a change, and I did try to move away from what I thought was the excessive dominance of what is called the lobby system, and what really has led to those allegations of spin – by the way, spin assumes that you got success in getting your message across, even if it’s superficial and I don’t think anybody could accuse me of having a great success in getting my message across. But I tried to move away from that. One, we moved away from having a political chief of communications to having a civil servant doing the job. That was to send the message that we were not trying to politicise government information; we were trying to give the information that was necessary for the public to understand what was happening”.
5.16 Mr Brown did suggest that there had been risks to the public interest in New Labour’s approach to news management. Asked if there were any lessons to be learnt from the period 1997 to 2010, he indicated:132
“Yes. We should have ... changed the system where people relied on exclusive briefings and had a far more transparent system of addressing the country through the press than we have even today, and I obviously have to take some responsibility for this ... So yes, there needed to be more openness. We inherited a system which was based on, if you like, exclusivity. It was also based on insiders winning over outsiders, so a lot of people were excluded from that system”.
5.17 From one standpoint, then, the priority of the politicians learning the lessons administered to them by the press in the ‘wilderness years’ of the 1980s and early 1990s was both to persuade the press that they had nothing to fear from a change of Government and to reach the public in a less adversely mediated way. From another standpoint, this was at the expense of a breakdown of public trust engineered by political self-interest. For politicians trying to manage the agenda, it was about getting a fair hearing; for journalists resisting the management of the agenda, it was about manipulation and favouritism. Neither standpoint is neutral or objective. In the relationship between press and politician, in circumstances where political positions are not aligned there is a contest of wits (or megaphones) in which each viewpoint seeks to outmanoeuvre the other in a contest to dominate the public debate. Sometimes that can benefit and enrich the public debate and a balanced perspective can emerge. Sometimes it can have the opposite effect: the public is so overwhelmed by the messages delivered by competing megaphones, it does not have the chance to sort the wheat from the chaff or to discern the true kernel of the issue.
5.18 If New Labour did not invent ‘spin’, it nevertheless found itself in an unprecedented place in relation to news management as an agenda item in its own right. On the one hand, its election-winning strategy in 1997 explicitly had in mind the lessons to be learned from the recent past. On the other, there is an obvious question about the extent to which a media strategy of ‘neutralising’ those sections of the press which had been hostile to the party in the 1980s and in the run-up to the 1992 general election became a victim of its own success, and resulted in diminishing public confidence in political communications.
The perspective of journalists and commentators
“... As trust crumbled, so did reporters’ willingness to defer to the government. Tales of how New Labour had bullied junior reporters or producers spread through the warren of press gallery offices and between broadcasters’ headquarters. The backlash was slow, but it came. By the end of Blair’s first two years, it was a badge of honour to be ‘bollocked’ by Campbell or Mandelson, and to shout back just as loudly. The persistent attempts to dictate what should appear on a front page, or at the top of a running order, became infuriating and hardened journalistic hearts. Even before the 1997 election it was obvious that Labour had spies tipping it off about running orders, script lines and correspondents being used for news programmes and was attempting to ambush them before they went on air to get more favourable coverage. In lobby meetings, Alastair Campbell and others would single out and ridicule the correspondents of editorially hostile newspapers ... Favoured reporters were given special treatment, just as their editors were made much of in Downing Street and invited to weekends at Chequers.
But political correspondents have a certain esprit de corps alongside their professional rivalry, and the cynical way in which some were favoured because they worked for Rupert Murdoch, while others were sneered at because they worked for Conrad Black, disgusted many who worked for neither.”
“I think that a decision was taken that it was very important to keep the Murdoch papers, so far as was possible – it wasn’t always possible – on side and to have a close relationship with their leading journalists and their leading reporters. They were inside of the tent, if you like, as were some Labour friendly newspapers too, while papers like the Daily Telegraph were indeed kept at arm’s length, made to feel unwelcome. From time to time their correspondents like George Owens [sic] would be mocked during lobby briefings. There was very much an attempt, I felt, to divide this core – this group of journalists into the favoured ones, the ones who were sort of part of the project, almost, and the ones who were off in the wilderness.”
“Q: I’m going to read the opening quotation of chapter 7 of your book... The Quotation is from Robert Shrimsley, who is the news editor of the Financial Times, and it reads: “When I joined the lobby in 1992, I would abandon a story if Number 10 denied it. By the time I left, I sometimes felt justified in merely recording the denial at the bottom.”
Q: How accurate a summary is that of the change in government communications during that period?
A: I completely agree with Mr. Shrimpley136 ... I felt that what was true – I think what we had when New Labour emerged in power in 1997 was really a – what I’d call a new epistemology, which was that truth was really seen as something which served the purposes of government or the party in power. It wasn’t – the rigorously testable, empirical truth was of no interest – of a kind which would be of interest to this Inquiry – was not of interest to New Labour spokesmen. They were interested in the truth as it served their political purposes, and so that was a different definition of truth. That, I think, is what Mr. Shrimpley137 is referring to there that denials or assertions became really an instrument of government rather than an instrument of telling the truth.”
5.22 Simon Walters is the political editor of the Mail on Sunday, a position which he has held since 1999. He has been a journalist since 1974 and a member of the lobby since 1983. In his written evidence, Mr Walters noted that:138
“During Mr Blair’s government, much energy was devoted to ensuring all departments were ‘on message’ – repeating the Downing Street line on any given issue. From the point of view of the Government, this greater degree of political control makes sense. But it can be argued that this is not in the public interest or that of the media. For example, if Number 10 is trying to cover up a politically embarrassing story, it is easier to do so if there is central control over the entire Whitehall media machine”.
5.23 This Chapter has focused on aspects of news management during the 13 years of the New Labour: insofar as it has become relevant to the Conservative Party and the Coalition, this will be analysed in the course of Chapter 4. But precisely because more than one view is possible about the advantages and risks of news management techniques, particular care must be exercised to ensure that the message – an encapsulation of the facts and policies which politicians of whichever party wish to share with the public – is not lost in distractions about the packaging.
5.24 Once again, the substantive issues which remain are to do with public perception. If the public do not have confidence in the politicians to provide a straight message even, where necessary, warts and all and the public do not have confidence in the press to provide a fair (although not necessarily balanced or impartial) account, everybody in our democracy loses. Holding power to account can be partisan, but if the public detect that it is not fair, one way or the other, the consequent loss of faith will damage both politicians and the press. Furthermore, if ‘favoured’ relationships and the transaction of exclusives play a prominent role in the presentation of issues or, on the other side, simple error is always portrayed as venal, corrupt or wanting in integrity, public trust will be lost and the currency of public debate devalued.