Saturday, May 28 2016

Rupert Murdoch, Westminster and lobbying transparency

In his column in the Daily Telegraph today, Peter Oborne writes about the News International phone hacking scandal, the parliamentary report this week on the scandal, and the political sleaze factor.

Oborne’s article raises important issues on the significance of the select committee report, the comments of Conservative politicians in support of Rupert Murdoch and the future of lobbying and transparency in Westminster.

Oborne writes:

“The Murdoch scandals are turning into a first-class disaster for David Cameron and his party, while so far leaving Labour intact.

“This is extraordinary and needs explanation. When very serious allegations started to be made against News International last summer, it was far from obvious that the Conservatives would be the main victims. The situation looked balanced in their favour. Certainly, David Cameron had made appalling misjudgments in employing the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson and becoming too close to the former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks. But Labour, it appeared, was even more embarrassed. Ed Miliband was almost the last guest to leave Rupert Murdoch’s 2011 summer party in Holland Park, and would probably have sucked up to Murdoch even more than he did had he been encouraged to do so. Tony Blair was godfather to Mr Murdoch’s child and incorporated the US media tycoon as a very senior (though unofficial) member of his government. Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, notoriously invited both Brooks and Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, to a cringe-making pyjama party at Chequers.

“For some reason, Mr Cameron and his close circle have emerged as the main public champions of News International. They are bravely – some would say wilfully – refusing to accept that the Murdoch system, as it flourished under Blair, Brown and early Cameron, is finished.

“Now we can turn to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which has split along party lines over Mr Murdoch’s management of his News International titles. The Labour and Liberal Democrat members judge that Mr Murdoch is “not a fit person” to run an international company. The Tory members disagree, so voted against the report.

“This strategy goes from strength to strength. Think of what lies ahead. Soon, Jeremy Hunt must appear before the Leveson Inquiry and answer questions about those deeply improper emails between his special adviser and Rupert Murdoch’s lobbyist. Then Mr Cameron himself will face a lengthy session at Leveson, probably in late May.

“A fresh embarrassment concerns Rebekah Brooks, who providentially retained the text messages she received from the Prime Minister, which I’m told could exceed a dozen a day. These may now be published, a horrible thought. Next year it is possible that some of Mr Cameron’s closest allies and friends, including Andy Coulson, the former Downing Street director of communications, will go on trial. Apart from anything else, these reminders of the Prime Minister’s poor judgment will reinforce the popular belief that he is arrogant, louche and only comfortable as a member of some elitist set.

“Politicians can now be divided into two categories: those who bought into the News International culture and methodology, and those who did not.

“Here are the News International crowd: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, David Miliband, David Blunkett, John Reid, Tessa Jowell, Michael Gove, George Osborne, William Hague. David Cameron, John Whittingdale and Jeremy Hunt (as well as Mr Hunt’s brainless sidekick, Ed Vaizey) should also be added to this list.

“And here are the refuseniks: Vince Cable, Tom Watson, George Galloway, Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke. This is a much shorter list. My hunch is that their integrity has paid off and we are coming to the end of the Murdoch era, which was based around a cult of celebrity, collusion, criminality and deceit.

“Something wonderful may be happening to British politics: the air at Westminster is becoming cleaner and fresher. Mr Miliband, always under-rated as Labour leader, has woken up to this defining story of our age much faster than Mr Cameron and his amoral strategists. That is why he has been able to convert the News International phone hacking and corruption scandal into Tory sleaze. The Conservatives need to wake up fast.”

The report by the Culture, Media and Sport select committee to which Oborne refers was approved by the committee by a majority of six to four and was split along party lines, with the Conservatives on the committee voting against the report. The report gives a damning verdict on Rupert Murdoch, finding him and his son, James Murdoch, responsible for the phone-hacking scandal. The secretive government relations with powerful lobbying interests that have been exposed in the wake of the phone hacking scandal is all too ironic given that Cameron himself spoke of lobbying as the “next big scandal” which deserved to be scrutinised under  “the light of transparency”.

The Fox/Werritty scandal in which the former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, allowed his friend, Adam Werritty to pose as an advisor and attend ministerial level meetings and the Bell Pottinger scandal, exposed by the Independent amid boasts by the agency of its having access and influence over the PM and his government, are just two examples that have recently come to light.

The government consultation on introducing a statutory register of lobbyists ended last month and as ministers now reflect on the submissions presented in favour of a robust system of regulation for lobbying through a register, they might ponder how a “cleaner and fresher” air at Westminster could be restored.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 May 2012 20:20

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