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Shoot the messenger

July 12, 2011

SIXTEEN years ago, in July 1995, the high-flyers of Rupert Murdoch's media empire had gathered for one of their periodic conferences at an Australian resort. The News of the World NoW

The keynote address was delivered by the new leader of the British Labour Party. The published diaries of Piers Morgan, who was editor of () at the time, state that Tony Blair “spoke passionately of his 'new moral purpose' … and vowed to set free media companies from 'heavy regulation and allow them to exploit their 'enterprise'”.

Murdoch, all of whose British media outlets had offered unstinting support to Margaret Thatcher's government but had been less than impressed by her Conservative successor John Major, was thrilled. In his own speech, the head of News Corporation declared: “If our flirtation is ever consummated, Tony, then I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines, Very, very carefully.” However, from where he was sitting, Morgan writes, “there didn't seem to be anything prickly between them”.

Blair later told Morgan: “It was very important for me to come here and get the message over that New Labour is not going to strangle businesses like News Corporation. We believe in a vibrant free press and in commercial enterprise.”

It is widely believed that support from the Murdoch press was instrumental in New Labour's electoral landslide less than two years later. The relationship was always somewhat lopsided, though. Blair listened to, and invariably heeded, Murdoch's advice — a former prime ministerial aide has described the media magnate as the 24th member of Blair's cabinet — but was under no illusion that he could have a reciprocal effect on the policies of newspapers owned by News International, Murdoch's British subsidiary. Hence, to remain in its good books, he consistently kowtowed. The Mercury

Murdoch was a frequent guest at No. 10 Downing Street, sometimes surreptitiously, and there were numerous telephone questions. Three of these, it has recently been reported, took place in the 10 days preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Blair had already made up his mind about that particular transgression, so perhaps he just wanted reassurance. It can hardly be a coincidence, though, that every Murdoch outlet but one enthusiastically supported the aggression against Iraq. , a tiny paper based in Hobart, Tasmania, resisted the trend — but fell into line within weeks.

There's evidence that Blair's attitude towards Europe was driven by Murdoch's notorious Euro-scepticism. That's just one example. The Murdoch press did not always spare Blair, but he appears to have retained his loyalty beyond his tenure as prime minister: allegations have lately emerged that he pressured his successor, Gordon Brown, to call off a pro-Brown Labour MP, Tom Watson, who was particularly gung-ho in his criticism of News International. NoW NoW's

Although Murdoch reputedly paid a visit to Brown as soon as the latter took over as prime minister, Blair's rival was viewed as another Major and the sights were set on David Cameron, who was only too happy to kowtow and hired Andy Coulson, a former editor of , as the chief spin doctor for the Conservatives and subsequently as the prime minister's director of communications. That's the role Coulson was compelled to jettison last January after further reports about the behaviour during his tenure as editor made his position untenable. NoW's

Coulson had resigned as editor in 2007 after the royal editor and an 'investigator' employed by Britain's highest-selling newspaper had been taken into custody on the charge of hacking into cellphones belonging to royal aides. The newspaper and its owners pretended at the time that this was a rogue enterprise restricted to one reporter. It is now more or less clear that the executives knew at the time that it went far beyond that. NoW The Guardian

When the story re-emerged two years later amid evidence that had settled out of court with a number of celebrities alleging breach of privacy, the newspaper dismissed it as a vendetta being pursued by — and Scotland Yard appeared to concur, with its assistant commissioner arguing that no further investigation was warranted. The latter has lately apologised for the lack of probity. NoW NoW

The public tide against the turned once it emerged that hackers on its payroll had targeted not just celebrities — the paper's usual focus of attention — but ordinary victims of crime such as Milly Dowling, a schoolgirl kidnapped in 2002 who was subsequently found murdered. Not only had her cellphone been hacked while police were still searching for her, but the representative had actually deleted messages from it in the hope of receiving some more — thereby indicating to the victim's family that she might still be alive, and arguably interfering with the police investigation. NoW

Small wonder, then, that the Dowling family has joined the call for the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of the at the time and is now chief executive of News International. She appears to have Murdoch's unstinting support, though, and there is no incontrovertible evidence linking her to the hacking. NoW NoW

As allegations emerged that the families of British soldiers killed in Blair's wars, as well as those of the victims of the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks in London and perhaps even the 9/11 attacks in New York were targeted by the , the negative public perception of the Murdoch media was reinforced. Rupert decided to kill the , established in 1843, rather than sacrifice Brooks — and there's plenty of speculation, not least among the non-complicit journalists who have lost their jobs, about why that should be so.

Murdoch will be more worried, though, about the scandal jeopardising his bid for complete ownership of the British satellite broadcaster BskyB, which has now been referred to the Competition Commission after Labour leader Ed Miliband threatened to demand a House of Commons vote in which his initiative would most likely have been supported by the Liberal Democrats and possibly even some Tories. Sunday Times

Amid emerging evidence that another News International title, the relatively respectable , employed unethical, and quite possibly illegal, means to delve into the private lives of the Brown family, this story is likely to run for a while. But the Murdoch spell over Britain's political culture might indeed have been broken. The Guardian n

At the same time, news people (at in particular) can draw sustenance from Alexander Chancellor's comment last week that “however ghastly journalists may be, nobody would know anything without us — not even the extent of our own ghastliness”.