Finally, our leaders are outraged. The claim that the mobile phone of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler was hacked by the News of the World has been described as “truly dreadful” (David Cameron), “totally shocking” (Ed Miliband) and “grotesque” (Nick Clegg). Could this be the moment that Britain’s spineless politicians begin to break free from the pernicious grip of the Murdoch media empire?
In recent years, there has been no more sickening – and, I should add, undemocratic – spectacle in British public life than that of elected politicians kneeling before the throne of King Rupert. Paying homage in person to the billionaire boss of News Corporation became almost a rite of passage for new party leaders. Tony Blair, famously, flew out to address News Corp’s annual conference on an island off Australia in 1995. “We were thrilled when Tony was invited to be the keynote speaker,” writes Blair’s ex-chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, in his memoir.
The day after his speech in front of the media mogul, an editorial in the Murdoch-owned Sun declared: “Mr Blair has vision, he has purpose and he speaks our language on morality and family life.” By 1997, the Sun – which had heaped such abuse and ridicule on the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock – had officially come out for Blair and, in the wake of his landslide election victory, the new prime minister thanked the Sun for its “magnificent support” that “really did make the difference”.
But it didn’t. “I think the Sun came out for us because they knew we were going to win,” says Blair’s former communications chief, Alastair Campbell, now. In a study for the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends in 1999, Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde concluded that it “was not the Sun wot won it in 1997”, adding: “[T]he pattern of vote switching during the campaign amongst readers of the Sun or any other ex-Tory newspaper proved to be much like that of those who did not read a newspaper at all.”
Yet Blair – and, lest we forget, Gordon Brown – continued to hug Murdoch close. “He seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet,” the former Downing Street spin doctor Lance Price has observed. On issues like crime, immigration and Europe, “his voice was rarely heard . . . but his presence was always felt”. Little has changed under Cameron. He appointed Andy Coulson as his director of communications in July 2007 – just six months after the latter had resigned as News of the World editor over the original phone-hacking scandal.
The Tory leader then made his own pilgrimage to the see the Sun King in August 2008, joining Murdoch on his yacht off the coast of Greece. It is said that he removed the liberal Dominic Grieve as shadow home secretary in 2009, on the insistence of News International’s chief executive – and close personal friend – Rebekah Brooks, who is now under pressure to quit over her alleged role in the hacking affair. The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, waved through proposals to allow Murdoch to buy all of BSkyB – in the midst of the hacking row.