Tag Archives: Blair

Blair at Leveson: Blair never caved in to the newspapers; Brown did

28 May

Blair’s ghost: the medium on media

Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus tells of the fall of a talented man driven mad by his own passions and desires for riches and glory. It is the story of Mozart’s rival and lesser musician called Salieri. In the final scene, we see a broken man who gives his last speech:

Now I go to become a ghost myself. I will stand in the shadows when you come to this earth in your turns. And when you feel the dreadful bite of your failures – and hear the taunting of unachievable, uncaring God – I will whisper my name to you: “Antonio Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities!”

Today we saw a ghost who has been lurking in the shadows for some time, about whom only a few wizened and whispering old hacks care. It is Antonio Blairi, the Patron Saint of Mediacracy, come to prove that he had no interest in the media, media barons or media ownership.

The central charge against him: he was too fixated on what the newspapers thought. He denied this. When asked if the media ever distracted him from his job as PM, Blair said they never distracted him from “the main issues” of the day.

The misfortune is, “the main issues” were media-driven. To manage “the main issues” – be it a silly comment made by a minister, or the latest media panic – you need a media officer. Blair had a dozen: a Chief of Staff, a Communications Director, a Deputy Communications Director, a Director of Government Relations, a Strategy Adviser, among pointless others.

Alastair Campbell was Blair’s closest lackey. A cursory glance at his diaries show the trivia he dealt in. One can’t help think, reading the diaries 15 years later, why did this matter? Why did they care so much? On the one hand, listening to the media is good – in fact, healthy for democracy. The latest U-turns on planning reform and secret courts – in the face of media pressure – not only make for better legislation; they make democracy a more active thing than simply the process of voting every 5 years.

On the other hand, spending a large chunk of the day reading the newspapers, worrying about the angle, phoning Tony to discuss the narrative, phoning up hacks to berate them or toast them, checking on the 24-hour news channels – one can’t help but ask, what was the point? Here is a fascinating clip of the team, Tony and Alastair, in action (12:10). Watch the frozen look on their faces as they realise they are being filmed. It is like watching two schoolboys being caught up to no good.

We go too far, however, if we say Blair caved in to the newspapers. His aim was to manage the media, not to let them direct policy. We kid ourselves if we say Blair kept the Thatcher reforms on unions, on privatisation, on tax because of Rupert Murdoch. The truth is, Blair really was that rightwing. On vast areas of policy, from Europe to Iraq, he stayed the course despite a hostile press.

He did things Murdoch hated. He stopped BSkyB buying Manchester United and ITV. He introduced TV regulator Ofcom. He granted the BBC digital channels and a news website. He raised the BBC licence fee 14% above inflation, from £91.50 to £135.50.

The MMR uproar is a case in point. Despite a media frenzy after a report suggested an MMR vaccine caused autism, Tony Blair rose above it, saying:

On the contrary, the vaccine which [sic] is used throughout the world, helps prevent the spread of diseases that can, if contracted, cause very serious damage to children. [Parents can rely on] overwhelming research that has found the alleged link between autism and MMR to be unfounded.

It was Gordon Brown who caved in to newspapers. When he became PM, he set up a TV that screened rolling news all day in the office. Staff said he would shout at it when he was particularly incensed. Even on planes he would want to know the headlines. According to Andrew Ransley, he would badger aides: “What’s the story? What’s the story?” On a trip to the Vatican, an aide said: “Prime Minister meets Pope. Why doesn’t someone tell him that’s the fucking story?”

There is good evidence to suggest he let the media direct policy too. Blair had downgraded cannabis to a class C drug, something Brown had accepted as Chancellor. As PM Brown reclassified it as Class B, despite expert advice and a fall in cannabis use. Second, it is curious that despite Brown’s avowed love for the BBC, the license fee was frozen in real terms. Third, Gordon Brown wanted it to be legal to detain a British citizen without charge for 42 days on suspicion of terrorism. This was explicitly done to charm Murdoch. Brown’s most trusted aide Ed Balls told Anthony Seldon:

 Blair made it very clear to Gordon that he had to come across as tough; the News International people would worry if he was not. That is why he did 42 days.

This is one of the foundations of English liberty: the right not to be held on unknown grounds by the state. Gordon Brown acted like a reverse King John, coaxed by a baron to get rid of a freedom enshrined by Magna Carta. This was a clear contravention of his speech on liberty at the start of his tenure, in which he even hailed Magna Carta as the glorious start of British liberty. This is the man who would say anything to curry favour with the Tory press.

On reflection it is easier to cast Brown in the role of Shaffer’s Salieri. Jealous at a better man’s talents and popularity, he decides to make a pact with God. Salieri will do as God pleases if only He looks kindly on him. When it becomes clear Amadeus (“Beloved of God”) is the favoured one, and God has not kept his side of the bargain, Salieri declares war on God:

So be it! From this time we are enemies, You and I! I’ll not accept it from You – do you hear! They say God is not mocked. I tell you, Man is not mocked! I am not mocked! […] (Yelling) Dio ingiusto – You are the Enemy! I name thee now – Nemico Eterno! 

I can hear the mobile clatter across the room.

Murdoch’s power solely lay in convincing leaders of his power

3 May

Newspapers have little power influencing public opinion. A gung-ho Sun that savaged Brown everyday failed to get Cameron a majority. An anti-Livingstone press didn’t stop Londoners voting Ken in twice. The truth is, more Brits tune in to TV and radio bulletins than read newspapers. And many tabloid-readers are often more interested in gossip and sport than political essays.

Politicians don’t believe this. They believe tabloids are decisive in winning elections. Forefront in Labour minds in particular is the 1992 election. After 13 years of Tory rule, Labour’s Neil Kinnock was certain he would win. But Murdoch’s Sun launched a vicious campaign against him, culminating in an election-day front page. “We don’t want to influence you in your final judgement,” it said, “but if it’s a bald bloke with wispy red hair and two K’s in his surname, we’ll see you at the airport.”

The front page that won an election?

Two days later, the paper announced “It Was The Sun Wot Won It”. This was sheer hubris. The wit of a headline-writer did not and cannot make a reader change his vote. The greatest thing the front page could have achieved was a chuckle. If you liked Kinnock, you’d have probably stopped buying the Sun by now. Murdoch’s power lay not in persuading the public, but in persuading politicians.

1992 convinced Labour that Murdoch was all-powerful. A new generation of Labour politicians, led by Tony Blair, set about winning over the man. In 1995 they jetted halfway round the globe for a private audience with Murdoch. Blairite fantasist John Rentoul explains it was not a bootlicking session at all; this was the speech where he stood up to Murdoch. Campbell’s diaries expose this as the fantasy it is. Campbell, writing the speech on the plane, says:

I was a bit fearful of the potential political downside of appearing to ignore the Murdoch/right-wing agenda, so I persuaded [Blair] we had to challenge that agenda further. […] The party would instinctively not like it.

Any anti-Murdoch stuff in the speech, Campbell confirms, was just to please the party. The speech was designed purely to butter Rupert up. Campbell told Murdoch they had put more into it than any speech outside party conference. Murdoch walked away happy. When Campbell returned home, Neil Kinnock raged at him. “You imagine what it’s like having your head stuck in a fucking light bulb,” he said.

All harmless pandering, you might think. But Murdoch’s support at the 1997 election came with tacit caveats. Campbell’s former deputy Lance Price said, “No big decision could ever be made inside Number Ten without taking account of the likely reaction of three men — Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch.” He was the 24th Cabinet member, according to Price.

Rupert would take care of an unfounded drugs policy, vast areas of law and order, anti-terror, anti-paedo and anti-asylum policy. All ministers who made liberal noises on these policy areas would be kicked back into line, out of fear of what Rupert might think. He would be a sort of permanent Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs. Meetings and phone calls with Rupert also forced Blair to U-turn on a referendum on a new European constitution (which unfortunately came to nothing after French voters said no).

But the greatest offence is this: those in office helped him expand his business empire. It happened under Thatcher. After he had lunch with her privately (something revealed by recent documents but denied by the official history of The Times), Mrs Thatcher let him buy The Times in 1981 without referring the takeover to the Monopolies Commission. It is said, when Thatcher again let Murdoch acquire Sky, she sent a draft of the Broadcasting Bill 1990 to his lawyers so appropriate deletions could be made.

Blair showed a similar friendliness to Murdoch’s business plans. At a private dinner in 1994, according to Andrew Neil, “Blair indicated that media ownership would not be onerous under Labour; Rupert that his newspapers were not wedded to the Tories.” A Communications Bill promised to relax rules on cross-media ownership.

It was only a Labour peer‘s late amendment to the Communications Act 2003 that allowed politicians to stop a media takeover on the grounds of public interest. Without this Murdoch could have bought off BSkyB in 2010 with no objections. Murdoch could not turn Sky into a partisan Fox-Newsesque channel under Ofcom rules. But we know Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had plans to overhaul the Communications Act 2003, which established Ofcom as a regulator. In 2011 he said the review to the Act would be “thorough” and he was “prepared to radically rethink the way we do things”.

Were this any other business than a media organisation, our politicians’ dealings with Murdoch’s companies would be slammed as corruption – the same corruption that blights Indian politics, one that makes us call the political system there “dysfunctional”. But because he owns the media, there is still a well-paid commentariat that defends him.

In defence of Parliament

26 Oct

What most folk would like to do to parliamentary democracy

David Cameron stands up to the dispatch box.  He starts to speak.

“This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause chaos. What on earth did he mean?”

The Tory benches jeer.

“W-what would cause chaos,” Gordon Brown says, “is if a Conservative government were elected and cause public spending cuts…”

He is drowned out by Labour cheers.

“So there we have it,” Mr Cameron smiles, “the first admission that he thinks he is going to lose.”

HEEEEEEEEEAR!!!

The noise when you are watching Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is terrific. I once watched it from the House of Commons, and I can tell you, it is much louder in the Chamber. It is a noise which comes from the guts of 200-odd mainly privately-educated grown men. It is staggering. It reminds me of the times in Ardingly when a dining room-full of schoolboys would tacitly decide to sing Happy Birthday for no apparent reason other than to panic the junior member of staff on duty. As he or she marched up to find the ringleader, the singing would mysteriously stop. Relieved, he or she would walk away. A nod would be exchanged. You would catch someone’s glance, a glimmer of mischief in each eye. The singing would start over again.

The same juvenile impulse is at play in the Commons. It is juvenile. And yet, that urge to jeer, collectively, as one, gives such a rush. It makes you break away from any Latinate sophistication you once had, and makes you feel truly Anglo-Saxon: as if you are part of some wode-daubed tribe, or a blind-drunk football crowd, or a mud-soaked army about to whop the French. “HEEEEEEEAR!!!” What else can you do if Gordon Brown says he has saved the world? What other alternative is there when Betty Boothroyd tells a Lib Dem to “spit it out”?

PMQs is childish; it is witty; it is riotous fun; it is a fantastically bizarre thing to have as a national institution. That is why I love it.

Others disagree. Tabloid historian Dominic Sandbrook questions whether PMQs is fit-for-purpose in this great documentary marking 50 years of PMQs. The current Speaker, John Bercow, thinks the public hates the noisy futility of it all. I suspect the indifferent British public does get irritated by it. As they are hit by gas bills, petty crime and sluggish growth, they see their politicians behaving like a bunch of school kids. They must think: one, it is a waste of time, and two, it makes politics a question of personalities, not of policies. Both these criticisms are misplaced.

Is it a waste of time? Tony Blair spent the night before and morning preparing for PMQs at 12.00. Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings are great chunks of time to be taken up by a Prime Minister. The PM could be building relations with the French President or fine-tuning education policy. Instead, he takes time out of his job for what is essentially half an hour’s mud-slinging. Moreover, if one is a skilled politician, it is easy to give non-answers to non-questions. Just learn some facts, fit in some gags, prescript your responses: job done. As Blair himself admits, it is “a myth that it’s a great way of holding the prime minister to account. […] In truth, the whole thing is a giant joust.”

Giant joust or not, there is still a function to it. First, it ensures the leader of our country is on top of unemployment figures, health policy and so forth, rather than jetting off chatting to foreign dignitaries. It is important the PM is responsive to what is happening in this country. Second, parliamentary criticism puts pressure on the prime minister to act. Think of the News of the World scandal this year. Knowing Miliband and the rest of the Commons would savage the prime minister if he did nothing, David Cameron was pressured to launch an inquiry and urge Murdoch to drop the BSkyB bid. Far better it is for the executive to be held account by the legislature, rather than be outside of it, as all American Presidents are. Obama is held to account only by the unelected media, not elected politicians. PMQs restores that link between leader and parliament by commanding the PM to be there at least once a week.

What of the idea that it thrusts personality centre-stage? It makes virtues of stagecraft, egotism and dogmatism, and vices of modesty and uncertainty, does it not? That may be true, but that’s politics. As much as we would prefer a wise leader to one that only appears wise, politics will always favour the latter. It has always been that way. Disraeli, Lloyd George, Wilson, Blair: actors, the lot of them. What is Parliament but a theatre? And the greatest show of all is PMQs.

The root of the dissatisfaction, I fear, is merely the modern age’s contempt for politicians. Removing PMQs would not make us respect our politicians any more. They would still be making a mess of the economy, launching illegal wars and avoiding the real problems of our society, as they always have done. Removing PMQs would just make politics more boring, like Germany’s. Everyone would say Ja or Nein, and not jeer or heckle, but just disagree politely, and – what is worse – politicians would be just as awful. Far better for us to have the theatre. Far better for us to have PMQs.

Baroness Manningham-Buller: one of my great heroines

4 Oct

This is to be a series of recommendations of sublime things you really must watch or listen to.

The first you really must listen to is Eliza Manningham-Buller’s talks (the link is here).  Eliza Manningham-Buller was head of MI5 from 2002 to 2007.  Though she is a sexagenarian, there is a certain sartorial elegance which, combined with her perceived “licence to kill”, cannot help but quicken the pulse somewhat.  As such, she adds to her role, it cannot be denied, a soupçon of sexual frisson, particularly for any Bond fans out there.  Furthermore, she is irrepressibly posh.  She is one of a bygone generation that pronounce “really” as “rarely” – which must be confusing if, say, she remarks, “I rarely want that man shot.”  She also refers to Islamist philosopher Sayyid Qutb as “QueueTube”, as if she were alluding to a video-sharing website pioneered in Britain.

So there is a sort of le-Carré-esque romance to this girl.  That’s not the main reason why she is a heroine of mine.  The main reason is her fearlessness, in standing up for liberty in the midst of terror, and in her cool assessment of security threats.  She says in the talks that 9/11 was a “crime, not an act of war”.  She thinks torture to be “wrong and never justified”.  And she believes talking with terrorists should always be considered, citing Northern Ireland as an example.

Most pertinently, she believes that the War in Iraq made us less safe, not more.  At the time, she warned the government that the security threat to the UK from Iraq was “very limited and containable”.  This runs counter to what Tony Blair believed – and more worryingly, what he still believes.  In his autobiography, he dedicates three whole chapters to defending the war.  In what is supposed to be the clincher to his argument, he describes being at a pre-Christmas drinks party and going to a room of the house for quiet reflection:

I sat and thought.  What did I truly believe?  That Saddam was about to attack Britain or the US?  No.  That he was a bigger WMD threat than Iran or North Korea or Libya?  Not really, though he was the only leader to have used them.  […] That he would leach WMD material or provide help to terrorists?  Yes, I could see him doing that.  Was it better for his people to be rid of him?  For sure.

When Eliza Manningham-Buller was asked at the Iraq Inquiry what she thought of this indirect threat – in the questioner’s words, “the theory that at some point in the future, [Saddam] would probably have brought together international terrorism and WMDs in a threat to Western interests” – she answered:

It is a hypothetical theory.  It certainly wasn’t of concern in either the short term or in the medium term to my colleagues or myself.

When asked whether toppling Saddam eliminated the threat of terrorism from his regime, she answered:

It eliminated the threat of terrorism from his direct regime.  It didn’t eliminate the threat of terrorism using unconventional methods of chemical, bacteriological or indeed radioactive.  […] In that respect, I don’t think toppling Saddam is germane to the long-term ambitions of some terrorist groups to use them.

What a damning rebuttal to Blair’s greatest argument for war.  His argument’s last port of call – an acceptance that Saddam would not use WMDs against this country, but a fear that he could provide WMDs for terrorists – is dismissed by the MI5 chief as merely “hypothetical” and “of no concern” to the Security Services.  Eliminating him was inconsequential to the external threat of terrorism to this country.  If there is a good enough argument to suggest Blair’s fears were a fantasy, it is this.

The fascinating thing is this: it was Eliza’s father, Reginald Manningham-Buller, that warned against modern Britain’s other military catastrophe, Suez.  As Attorney General in the 1950s, he wrote a letter of protest to the government, informing them of the illegality under international law of the intervention.  In a passage, which is worthy of reading today, a time when legal advisers cow under the pressure of authority and fear, he says he felt

compelled to write this letter because as the Law Officers are constitutionally the legal advisers of the Government… it will be generally assumed that we have been approached for advice as to the legality of what has been done.  […] I feel it is essential that I should make my views clear.  I had no opportunity of doing so before the ultimatum was delivered.

So here’s to the Manningham-Bullers: confrontational, principled, fearless!