Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The changing face of British Politics

It’s been a hectic few weeks of allegations, revelations and of course the closure of a 168 year old national newspaper. The political ramifications of the hacking scandal will run and run, but at this early stage it seems Ed Miliband has as last found his voice on this issue, his tone has been pitch perfect reflecting a growing public anger. He forced David Cameron to agree to his call for a public inquiry (The PM ended up calling two).

On this issue at least it seems the Labour Party has finally got the leader it has been looking for.

Surprisingly, the Prime Minister has been on the back foot since the story broke and criticism of his decision to bring Andy Coulson into the heart of government shows no signs of abating. His refusal to apologise for this evident error continues to provide ammunition for the opposition. Expect to hear Ed Miliband and others plug away at this for quite some time.

So what next? With the BskyB takeover now referred to the Competition Commission (see Jeremy Hunt’s statement below) it would seem that News International have bought themselves and the Government some breathing space. However, if the drip feed of hacking revelations continue – and it seems likely that they will - the danger is that News International’s other titles may become infected. News International may feel confident that they could pass the hurdle of the Competition Commission whose remit is to look at media plurality. But the steady stream of allegations which now include attempts to access the medical records of the former Prime Minister’s son, will make it difficult for OFCOM to consider James Murdoch a “fit and proper person” to own his own TV platform should the media regulator have to apply this test.

The Home Affairs Select Committee heard evidence from Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who received a hostile reception from his inquisitors led by Chairman Keith Vaz MP. Yates expressed regret that he failed to properly review the hacking evidence in 2009 but ruled out resigning. Instead he put the blame squarely at the door of News International (there will be no post retirement Times column for Mr Yates). The Committee seemed unsatisfied with Mr Yates responses with Mr Vaz finishing the session by stating: "It is the view of this committee that your evidence is unconvincing. Please do not regard this as an end to the matter."

In another twist, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee have requested James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks to appear before them next Tuesday (19th July). It is highly unlikely that the old man will – he cannot be compelled to. But if Mr Murdoch or Ms Brooks attend then expect sparks to fly.

Adding further fuel to the fire is Labour’s opposition day motion: “This House believes that it is in the public interest for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation to withdraw their bid for BskyB” which will be debated on Wednesday and is likely to attract strong Liberal Democrat support (the government may concede this in its entirety). Wednesday is also (thankfully for the Prime Minister) the final Prime Minister’s Questions prior to a long recess.

Longer term implications 
It is difficult to predict the longer term implications for the Prime Minster. David Cameron has been hurt badly by the saga and will continue to be as the drip-drip of appalling or salacious news continues. Rebekah Brooks told News International employees that there was a year’s worth of revelations as yet published. Mr Cameron, who will not want his premiership defined by this issue, may want to reconsider his decision to start the judicial inquiries after the police investigation.

Ed Miliband has rolled the dice on this. Not someone one would naturally associate with risk taking (other than blackjacking his Brother on a dark night in Manchester), he has gambled that there will be a sea change in the relationship between the media and political establishments. He will be keen to ensure the cross party discussion on the terms of the two inquiries hasten that. If they do not then Miliband can expect a torrid time from the Murdoch titles.

Equally it could be that the generally close relationship between the Murdoch empire and the Conservatives will also be transformed; wedding invitations, summer parties and Christmas dinners may be consigned to history. The danger for David Cameron is that he remains tainted by his association with the “Evil Empire” while his party moves on. Supporting Labour’s call to stop the whole NI/BSkyB merger would be a smart move for Mr Cameron even if it is again at Miliband’s behest. MP expenses anyone?

The reputation of the Metropolitan Police has also taken a pounding. The inquiry into their initial handling of the hacking revelations will undoubtedly create further embarrassment. An effective, forensic judge has the power to cause them significant pain. Of the current serving officers connected with this grand saga, it would appear John Yates has the most to lose.

BSkyB bid referred to Competition Commission