Old wounds heal quickly in politics, especially when those wounds happen to belong to one of the most influential media moguls in the world. Since David Cameron’s decision to approve the Leveson Inquiry back in June 2011, his relationship with Rupert Murdoch appeared to have reached an impasse, until the former appeared with George Osborne at Murdoch’s Christmas party at his house in St. James, London, on 23rd December. It has been suggested that this marks Murdoch’s return to the centre of British politics.
As the owner of News Corps, a media conglomerate which in Britain includes the Times and the Sun (the latter being the UK’s most widely read newspaper), Murdoch is a powerful ally for any politician to have, yet he is something of a political chameleon. Since his loyalty to Thatcher in the 1980s, he has been remarkably flexible in his political affiliations, which is precisely what makes him so dangerous in this modern world of media. A politically diplomatic tycoon poses more of a threat to the left than to those who keep to the hardest line. When Blair’s Labour won the 1997 election, a close and somewhat insidious relationship developed between the two figures; their infamous business trip to Pebble Beach in California garnered distaste from other Labour party members, and defined the conspiratorial air that has characterised Murdoch’s friendships with succeeding prime ministers.
It would be easy to compare the power of News Corp in Britain to the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in American politics. Politicians, be they Democrat or Republican, dare not oppose the NRA in the states such as Ohio or North Carolina, where their influence is at its strongest. The NRA promises support for reforms, if politicians will agree to give the organisation a thumbs-up and keep flying their colours; once a politician considers the potential benefits they would gain from such a relationship, they will quickly realise they will have to sacrifice their political integrity in the name of civil security, if they want their other reforms to be passed.
In spite of the connotations of great influence which the media and gun control organisations have on politics, the advantages of such endorsement could considerably overrated. A study from Paul Waldman on the last four US elections has shown that NRA endorsement earned candidates no more than 2% of their overall vote, although the NRA themselves have dismissed the study.
Could it be that we are overestimating the influence of Murdoch in the world of British politics? It seems unlikely; if the results of the savage attacks on Neil Kinnock during the 1992 election campaign demonstrate anything, it’s that words can rip deeper than bullets, and this lesson certainly wasn’t lost on Blair. In a famous interview with Piers Morgan, the then editor-in-chief of News of the World, Blair defended his position: “Piers, I had to court [Murdoch]. It is better to ride the back of the tiger than having it rip your throat out.”
What’s more, the current Labour leader looks set to slip into Kinnock’s shadow. Despite having backed Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election, declaring him to be the only candidate who believed in anything, there was an unmistakable amusement in Murdoch’s tweet in response to Corbyn’s victory: “Hard left Corbyn wins in landslide, goes on TV singing ‘Red Flag’. How did Cameron get this lucky? Hope he doesn’t slack off”. With the Sun and the Times’ onslaught of denunciation of Corbyn’s personal integrity, the future is already starting to look less than rosy for Labour’s chances of winning the next election.
In the light of the developing insecurities regarding Corbyn throughout the media, and the apparent reconciliation of Cameron and Murdoch, did the Leveson Inquiry amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The manipulation of media in all forms by the powers that be matters more in a post-industrial society than in its preceding age; greater educational opportunities and time to indulge in intellectual pursuits have left a vacuum which the reactionary are hungry to fill. Murdoch’s party is merely another reminder of the power of this media epoch.