by Kevin Meagher
Last week was a watershed for lots of reasons. It saw a recalibration of the relationship between the tabloid media and politics. It spelled the end of Rupert Murdoch’s infallibility; with the media Mephistopheles left looking vulnerable and hopelessly out of touch. And it marked the point where David Cameron’s teflon coating started to rub off. The familiar attacks on his poor judgement and his arrogance fusing in one perfectly resonant episode.
But it saw something else too; the point where Ed Miliband looked, sounded and acted like a leader. He was not the architect of the events that unfolded last week – opposition leaders seldom make the weather like that – but he has become the first leading politician in living memory to get up off his knees and challenge the malign hold Murdoch and his acolytes have on British politics.
Tentative at first, by the end of last week his positioning was assured. In calling for Rebekah Brooks’ head, the scrapping of the press complaints commission and then pressing for the appointment of a judge to lead the hacking-gate inquiry, Ed was on the front foot throughout. His robust performance at this morning’s press conference further evidence that this episode marks a change in gear for his leadership.
Today the payback for that boldness is apparent with culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s letter to Ofcom and the office of fair trading seeking their guidance on whether the News International takeover of BSkyB should still go ahead. A reactive gesture to public and political opinion if ever there were one. As the BBC’s Norman Smith put it:
“The government may be unwilling to publicly sound the death knell of the planned Murdoch buy out of BSkyB but behind the scenes funeral arrangements are being made.”
Yet some in the party are genuinely alarmed by Ed’s course of action; Rupert the Bogeyman still looms large in our psyche. There are plenty with long memories of how sand was kicked in the party’s face by his right-wing papers. Many fear reprisals. “Murdoch is like Dracula”, one senior Labour MP told me, “you simply don’t kill him off that easily.”
Perhaps. But Murdoch will never again hold British politics in the palm of his hand. That much has changed forever.
Labour politicians in particular – have worshipped at the feet of this false idol for too long already. This is not wishful liberal thinking. Ed Miliband has not suddenly turned into Hugh Grant’s prime minister in Love Actually, scolding the US president in public. This is a measured, calculated course of action.
Alastair Campbell has repeatedly made the point in the last few days that, in retrospect, far too much effort went in to courting Murdoch and his minions. The rise of social media in recent years and the relative (and ongoing) decline in newspaper sales, especially Murdoch’s, mean the game has irrevocably changed.
Yes, newspaper endorsements remain welcome, and the tone of their coverage will remain important, but it is not the be all and end all anymore. Perversely – and for the first time in his adult life – Rupert Murdoch is on the receiving end of a media kicking. Getting doorstepped on the golf course and looking and sounding flustered and unconvincing is a definite first; and emblematic of the sheer incompetence of News International in managing their corporate reputation throughout this mess.
He is not alone. David Cameron is not responsible for the crimes of the News of the World, but he is culpable for his reaction to them. His normal breezy confidence has taken a knock and his decision to ignore myriad warnings about Andy Coulson has returned to haunt him in an extremely public and damaging way. Likewise his cosy tete-a-tetes with Rebecca Brooks must now seem a dreadful embarrassment.
The energy behind this scandal will slowly start to dissipate. Rupert Murdoch and his family will not topple easily. Nevertheless, Ed Miliband deserves respect for taking a stand. He comes out if this episode emboldened.
Those who think there will be a terrible price to be paid will be proved wrong. Murdoch cannot put the genie back in the bottle. His investors will not allow him to play political games the way he has in the past. His declining years at the helm of News Corporation will see him scrambling to maintain control and find a strategy for moving from print to digital that sustains a future for the company. The velvet succession to son James looks anything but assured following this last week.
Also, in a curious way, men like Murdoch respect risk takers. Ed Miliband is acting like a winner. He has grabbed the terms of the debate and yanked it in his direction fusing pragmatism, principle and people power.
Fortune does indeed favour the brave. Last week Ed Miliband went for it. That is what leaders do.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.