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Thursday, April 22, 2010 

Media empires and the rise of the Liberal Democrats.

Very occasionally an incident takes place which tells you absolutely everything about the organisation which those involved represent. When James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks decided yesterday to storm into the offices of the Independent to remonstrate with editor Simon Kelner over a series of fairly innocuous adverts which the newly relaunched paper had been running, which involved the legend "Rupert Murdoch won't decide this election. You will" it can hardly fail to illustrate not just the self-importance and arrogance of the pair, but also the power which the likes of News International can and will wield if you deign to step even slightly out of line.

Their justification for confronting Kelner concerns the old Fleet Street rule that dog doesn't bite dog, and that proprietors especially are meant to be off limits. In practice, this rule is nonsense, and always has been: newspapers attack each other on a regular basis, especially if one publishes a piece felt to be overly critical or which hits too close to the bone. There might well be separate "non-aggression" pacts between the likes of the Mail and Express, and there was a wonderful example of newspapers closing ranks when the former executive chairman of News International Les Hinton phoned round all the other titles asking them not to cover Rebekah Brooks' (nee Wade) separation from Ross Kemp, but for the most part, and especially highlighted by the Guardian's coverage of the phone-hacking at the News of the World, while it isn't a free-for-all, testy criticism is regularly made.

What then did Murdoch and Brooks think they were doing? Did they seriously expect to just waltz onto a paper's editorial floor, berate the editor in strong language, with Murdoch alleged to have shouted "[W]hat are you fucking playing at?" and for none of the hacks that witnessed this to not instantly get on the phone to other titles? NI and the Independent have, predictably, made no comment, but then they didn't need to. This was, as Murdoch's biographer Michael Wolff has it, one way for empires to end. What was a mild advert for anyone else, pointing out the obvious, was for a former editor of the Sun, the paper that claims to follow its readers' views and not enforce its own upon them, the kind of truth which couldn't go without a response.

The empire symbolism is even more pertinent when it comes to the uniform right-wing press smearing and attacks on Nick Clegg this morning. Here is an entire section of the press, fully behind either the Tories or small c conservative in nature, all deciding that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats need to be brought down to size after a week in which they've threatened to bring the old two-party system crashing down. A press, whose true level of influence has always been difficult to ascertain, and all increasingly having to follow rather than lead as a new media which no one can control lets loose, which knows full well that if the polls become reality in two weeks then they're in a place which they haven't experienced in half a century, having little to no control on one of the major parties of government, that simply can't afford or allow that to happen. And this isn't just about their favoured masters not strolling to victory as they had predicted and hoped for, but in the case of the Sun it comes down to their personal dignity and decision to back the Tories so early; it comes down to Brooks and Murdoch personally persuading Murdoch senior to back Cameron, to the Sun always backing the winner while under Murdoch ownership. The humiliation of the Sun especially if Cameron doesn't get his majority is going to be total, and they will get the blame just as they claimed the victory for Major's win in 1992. That the support for the Tories has dropped ever since the Sun came out for Cameron is a happy coincidence more than being the reason, but it's one the paper must be incredibly touchy about.

Who knows whether there was the hand of Andy Coulson behind some of this morning's front pages, as the Prince of Darkness himself suggested, who knows whether, despite the denials, Murdoch junior and Brooks were at the offices of the Mail to see someone other than Kevin Beatty, what we do know is that the right-wing press is speaking, unusually, with one voice. What needs to be remembered is that this is the same right-wing press that has been so outraged and disgusted by various Labour attempts at smearing its opponents. Yet here we are, only two weeks from election day, and the Telegraph runs with a story which fell apart under the very slightest of examination which made incredibly damaging personal allegations against Nick Clegg, while the Daily Mail splashes on an article which Clegg wrote 8 years ago which was perfectly reasonable and which only the Mail could have any deep objection to. The Express, as usual, ties itself in knots by complaining that the Liberal Democrats want asylum seekers to work while there's 2.5 million unemployed at the same time as it bangs on alarmingly about scroungers, while the Sun at least decided to go on other policies even if they were weak beyond belief.

When even Iain Dale thinks that the campaign, coordinated or not, to get Clegg or to "kill Klegg", is likely to lead only to the opposite, and that the media is only showing itself up for what it is, then you know that it's in trouble. Never could this have been expressed better than by the Mail itself, via Alix:

There can be only one credible explanation for the utterly irrational outpouring of support for the Liberal Democrats after a mere 90 minutes of X Factor-style TV politics: the public, disgusted by the near moral bankruptcy of the last Parliament, is looking for revenge.

Yes, that's just what it is: an irrational response rather than a thoroughly rational one to two parties whose policies are almost indistinguishable, both led by individuals who were shown up by an insurgent in the first round. It couldn't possibly be a public deciding that it's time, once shown what a third party has to offer, that it's time they were given an opportunity rather than returning to the dead end of a duopoly. It couldn't possibly be an electorate deciding that it's time a fetid, overblown, parasitical and poisonous press stopped forcing their own opinion down the throats of both the readers and the public in general. Never has a part of the media been so terrified of what its own customers and readers seem to want, and how desperate they are to ensure that they turn them round before it's too late, regardless of how it's done. Empires may depend on it.

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The Patrick Wintour's Guardian blog does mention a senior tory strategist (one G Osbourne possibly) musing in the FT about the right wing press going on the attack against Nick Clegg and the Lib dems - this was on Tuesday. Coincidence no doubt.


Here's a link to an admittedly (small "c") conservative gay guy observing the shenanigans from a distance.

(He's generally a pretty good read too, and also a prolific blogger).


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