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Wednesday, July 13, 2011 

Decline and fall.

Last December, some of you might remember that Vince Cable told a couple of Telegraph hacks posing as constituents that he was picking his fights in government carefully. Not only had he declared war on Mr Murdoch over the proposed News Corporation takeover of BSkyB, he thought "we are going to win".

I thought the opposite, as must have Cable himself as he was quickly defenestrated for his indiscretion. Indeed, I went so far as to write:

That, more than anything, is the real lesson from today's antics. You simply can't be in any variety of government and be against Murdoch, let alone threaten to go to war against him, especially if you favour not having your voicemail messages listened in to. This is exactly why we've had the miserable sight of both Ed Miliband and John Denham rushing out to condemn Cable, even as Labour gets chewed to pieces in the Sun, as they still believe that one day it'll be their turn to bask once again in the warm glow of Murdoch media support.

In fairness to myself, absolutely no one predicted or could have come close to imagining how quickly Murdoch and News International could have gone from being all conquering behemoths, with the power to strike down any politician foolish enough to suggest that what's good for them isn't necessarily good for the rest of the country, to the pariahs they've become over the course of ten staggering days. True, almost all the media barons of the past few decades have been brought low in some way or another, Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black most notoriously, yet Murdoch just seemed too strong, too imposing, too, to paraphrase a cliché, big to fall.

As the reporters have all stated, the withdrawal of the bid to swallow BSkyB whole is almost certainly the biggest setback of his entire business career. It's also come only a month after News Corp quietly sold MySpace for $35m, having paid $580 million for it back in 2005. The deal may have been shrewd then; now it looks as embarrassing as one of the blinged up, abandoned profiles on the site. Last Thursday he shut the Screws, a still profitable if tainted brand in a futile attempt to try and save the BSkyB, as well as the skin of his glamorous surrogate daughter. Previously politicians may have accepted that as a sacrifice enough, even considering the depths of criminality it seems the paper may have went to. Today parliament was unanimous, if after the fact, in demanding that the takeover be dropped in the public interest. The fear that Murdoch, his papers and editors both inspired and played with to their utmost advantage has gone. It will almost certainly return, but for once it's difficult to demure from the much reached for expression that it will never be quite the same again.

Certainly the spectacle of a previous prime minister of this country denouncing News International as a "criminal-media nexus" is something I never imagined that I'd see. Gordon Brown's speech was typical of him: self-serving, intensely party political, infuriating and also, much to the distress of some on the Tory benches desperate to finger Tom Baldwin as somehow being as equally culpable as Andy Coulson could well turn out to be, mostly bang on target. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have tried to stress that both sides were too close to the Murdochs, and both have said lessons will be learn, but Brown's setting out of the record of how while he was prime minister his government blocked News International and BSkyB's aggressive ambitions to expand was in contrast to Cameron's turning of all their concerns and grievances into prospective policies. It was certainly something of a coincidence that when setting out his bonfire of the quangos while in opposition the one he expressly chose to make an example of was Ofcom, the regulator at the time being raged against by NI.

It's also apparent that had Brown, against the advice of Gus O'Donnell and others set-up a judicial inquiry so close to the election that he and Labour as a whole would have been torn to pieces by the Tory press and the Conservatives themselves. Again, it's worth remembering how no newspaper other than the Guardian reported on the employment tribunal that found Matt Driscoll had been bullied by Andy Coulson, while the Sun had just denounced the report by the media committee on phone hacking, which had reached only moderately critical conclusions, as representing "a black day for parliament". It may well be right that if Brown had really wanted an inquiry he could have ordered one, as some have argued in response, but it's more than understandable that he decided it wasn't worth a further monstering from the tabloids. As he's said, the record will come out.

All of this somewhat distracted from the actual announcement of the judge-led, two-part inquiry. It does thankfully seem to be broad enough in scope to consider the entirety of Fleet Street's use of the "dark arts", and not just the dependence of the News of the World on them. Held under the Inquiries Act, Lord Justice Leveson will have the power to summon almost anyone he feels appropriate, with evidence potentially being given under oath. Leveson, incidentally, was described earlier in the year by the Sun as a "softie", a description they may well come to regret. Especially promising is that he'll be allowed to make recommendations on cross-media ownership, with the potential that the Communications Act of 2003 could be amended to put in more stringent rules on the percentage of the media one person or company can control, prohibiting Murdoch from being able to resubmit a bid for Sky without offloading his other interests.

One thing that shouldn't be forgotten is that as Simon Jenkins wrote this morning, it wasn't ultimately the police, politicians or celebrities bringing civil cases who exposed what had been going on at the News of the World; it was other journalists. The withdrawal of the bid for BSkyB wouldn't have happened without the outrage from the public and the reverse ferret of politicians, it's true, but ultimately this was the Guardian's victory. This is why the reform of press regulation and change in practices while needed, should not go too far. While there should be a record kept of meetings between editors and proprietors and politicians, it doesn't need to be extended beyond that, discouraging contact between senior officials and hacks which often provide the stories that hold governments to account as much as the Commons itself does.

Not many wars are won without a shot being fired. Even fewer are won by individuals that had no direct involvement whatsoever. Vince Cable despite first appearances won his battle. His and our victory ought to remind us that in politics anything is ultimately possible, with even the most intractable and immovable obstacles and individuals being subject to the same forces as everyone else. It might take a long time, but eventually every empire declines and then falls.

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you know that cop...i think it was in "Terminator"...every time Arnie killed him he put himself back together and started running.
i think Rupe is like that.
we're doomed i tell ye.

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