Fury at Rupert Murdoch reflects pent-up anger of intimidated politicians

July 21, 2011

The phone-hacking scandal that has driven Rupert Murdoch and his empire into retreat and gripped audiences on both sides of the Atlantic is playing out against the backdrop of a combustible political-media culture vastly different from that in the United States.

The fury against Murdoch and the now-defunct News of the World, whose tentacles reached into both politics and law enforcement, reflects more than public outrage about revelations of hacking into the phones of celebrities, politicians and, ultimately, a girl who had been killed.

The reaction also reflects the anger of politicians who long have been intimidated by the tactics of aggressive tabloids and who have felt the need to curry favor with powerful media barons, especially Murdoch, to win the support of those newspapers and to shield themselves from their intrusive reporting.

In Britain, money plays a smaller role in politics than it does in the United States, and politicians have few ways to communicate effectively with the public outside the media filter. Television advertising plays no significant role in campaigns; for the most part, it is not allowed.

An American politician who feels aggrieved by the media can buy television spots to answer them. His British counterparts have no such option. Elected officials must depend on the good graces of newspapers for favorable coverage.

Murdoch is not the only owner of a British newspaper whose employees have used questionable methods in pursuit of sensational stories and political influence, although what the News of the World did has shocked even the cynics.

But as the biggest and most powerful of those media owners, with a reputation built over three decades, he is paying for his and the industry’s sins. This scandal has provided the vehicle for potentially broader retribution.

Where the criminal and political inquiries underway in Britain will lead can’t be fully known, but they almost certainly will diminish his power, which in turn could result in a change in the posture of politicians toward the media in general.

None of this is to say that what happened in Britain could never happen in the United States, and there are questions as to whether the phone hacking there spilled over here. But there is little equivalent in the United States to the power and influence of the British press, the relationship between the Murdoch corporate leadership and British politicians or the role of money and advertising in politics.

Contributing to the culture is the fact that London is a village, in a way that no U.S. city is. Here, Washington is the nation’s political center, New York the financial center, and Los Angeles the media and entertainment center. In Britain, all power is centralized, with Murdoch the biggest media player on the stage by far. Because everyone knows everyone in such a small community, when scandal hits, it doesn’t take long to draw the connections from power broker to politician.

To understand the uniquely British nature of this scandal, it is necessary to look at the intersection of media and politics there. Unlike in the United States, newspapers in Britain still wield enormous power. Television networks are constrained by law in what they can do and say. The BBC is required by charter to ensure balance. There is no cable television culture, as there is here, that sorts out viewers by ideology and feeds red meat daily to the participants in the political dialogue.

Instead, that role is left to newspapers. British papers are national in scope and therefore central in setting the political agenda. Papers there, especially tabloids, are, as one British journalist put it gently, less “fastidious” in their ethics and reporting standards than are the best of the U.S. papers.

They are also noisily partisan, and news coverage follows a paper’s editorial slant in ways it does not here. The Labor Party has its backers, the tabloid Mirror and broadsheet Guardian among them. But many more British papers lean toward the Conservative Party, with Murdoch’s Sun the most powerful of them.

Stan Greenberg, a U.S. pollster who has worked with the Labor Party in British campaigns for many years, said the Sun’s readership accounts for more than a fifth of the British electorate. Such reach and potential power is unimaginable in the United States, which is why Murdoch’s support has been so coveted by British politicians.

Murdoch long supported the government of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and, with less enthusiasm, backed her successor, John Major. Labor Party politicians still recall the Sun’s coverage and editorials attacking Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labor Party, during the 1992 campaign.

On the day of the election, a front-page headline in the Sun read, “If Kinnock Wins Today, Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Lights.” When the Conservatives unexpectedly won, the Sun followed with another front-page headline that read, “It’s the Sun Wot Won It.” Some Labor politicians could never forgive the Sun for what it did.

Tony Blair was not one, however. When he became leader of the Labor Party, he set out to win over Murdoch, thinking that without the backing of Murdoch’s Sun, Labor could well lose the subsequent election. In June 1995, Blair flew to Australia to speak at Murdoch’s News Corp. conference.

Many of his Labor Party colleagues were appalled. Blair saw it differently. As he wrote in his recent memoirs, “Again, now, it seems obvious: The country’s most powerful newspaper proprietor, whose publications have hitherto been rancorous in their opposition to the Labor Party, invites us into the lion’s den. You go, don’t you?”

U.S. presidents, especially in an earlier era, sought the friendship and patronage of powerful newspaper owners. But that was then. Would presidential candidates today feel the same pull to fly partway around the world to cozy up to a hostile newspaper owner? The answer is obvious.

Fox News Channel, which Murdoch owns, may command the attention of Republican politicians and presidential candidates, but its reach does not rival that of Murdoch’s media empire in Britain.

For Blair, the courtship paid huge dividends. Murdoch’s Sun switched allegiance, backing Labor in 1997 in an election that the party won in a landslide — although it’s possible that Blair could have won without Murdoch, given the British public’s weariness with the Conservatives.

The point was that Blair wasn’t prepared to take that risk.

Murdoch’s reputation as the maker of prime ministers grew, and he was accorded deference and access to No. 10 Downing Street that continued through most of the Labor Party’s decade in power.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown, Blair’s successor, continued this assiduous courtship while he was in office. When his baby daughter died, he invited editors from the Sun and the Daily Mail to the funeral. Brown said last week that he, too, was a victim of hacking, saying that his medical and financial records were compromised.

An American political consultant who has worked in Britain uses that to draw a distinction between the U.S. and British media. It is inconceivable that the same thing could happen to a U.S. president, he said; in Britain, it is not considered so outlandish.

When David Cameron, the current prime minister, won the fight to take over the Conservative Party in 2005, he set out to win back Murdoch’s allegiance. He was social friends with Rebekah Brooks, who was a former editor of the News of the World and later the head of Murdoch’s News International. He also brought Andy Coulson onto his campaign team as communications director.

Coulson, too, was a former editor of News of the World — at a time when the phone hacking took place, although he denied any direct knowledge of the acts that landed a reporter and a private investigator in jail. Appearing before Parliament on Wednesday, Cameron said that, “with 20-20 hindsight,” he would not have offered Coulson the job.

Brooks and Coulson have been arrested in the wake of the hacking scandal. Cameron flew back from a trip to Africa to appear before Parliament to defend himself amid the uproar over his relationship with the Murdoch empire’s leadership, which will no doubt be changing in the months ahead.

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Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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