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What this suggests is that Rupert Murdoch is too powerful already

2011 January 27
by Paul Vallely

Political momentum is not something most of us fully understand. It’s clear enough when inexorability has set in, as with the final months of Gordon Brown. But before that it is pretty much the preserve of political experts, like Andy Coulson.

The Labour MP Tom Watson blogged a few weeks ago that Mr Coulson would step down as David Cameron’s director of communications on 25 January. He resigned on January 21st, which is still a mean feat of prediction from Mr Watson. Or perhaps he had been told. Perhaps the Coulson resignation was timetabled, but brought forward to shelter beneath the kerfuffle over the Alan Johnson one.

What is intriguing is the way that a little story has snowballed and could yet get even bigger. It began with a “rogue reporter” from the News of the World being jailed for hacking into the cellphone messages of the royal household and Mr Coulson resigning as editor of the paper, protesting ignorance but accepting responsibility. Then came complaints about phone-hacking from a wide group of celebrities and politicians.

Law cases were initiated forcing the disclosure of documents. That resulted in the suspension of an executive on the paper. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owns the paper, made a number of out-of-court settlements, including £700,000 to the leader of the football players’ association. Labour’s former deputy leader John Prescott began demanding to know why the Metropolitan Police had not properly investigated suggestions that his phone had been hacked, along with that of 3,000 other named individuals.

Despite all that it seemed a story that was going nowhere, even though Mr Coulson was now press chief at 10 Downing St. Yet as more and more apparently inconsequential details emerged it began to be clear that the police had been remarkable dilatory in pursuing the case, certainly compared to the zeal with which they investigated the Labour government over claims of ‘cash for honours’. Why?

What changed everything was that the saga then became intertwined with another – the bid by Mr Murdoch to buy the 61pc that he does not already own of the tv station of BskyB.

Before Christmas the Business Secretary Vince Cable had been stripped of his powers to decide whether Mr Murdoch’s bid should be referred to the Competition Commission. He had been taped privately saying he had “declared war on Murdoch”.

What has since emerged is that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to whom the powers were transferred, has a track record of pro-Murdoch utterances and has been having unminuted meetings with News Corp executives with no civil servants present. To cap all that, we learned this week, the prime minister himself injudiciously had a dinner at the home of a senior News Corps figure at Christmas.

Ofcom has expressed grave reservations about the concentration of media power in the hands of Mr Murdoch if the BSkyB bid goes through. And yet Mr Hunt has now said he will give News Corp six months to come up with something to enable him to avoid a referral to the competition authorities.

The antennae of ordinary voters are now twitching. It has gone well beyond the fate of a seedy tabloid ex-editor. The police, culture secretary and prime minister have all behaved inappropriately or ineptly. The whiff of corrupt obeisance to Rupert Murdoch is in the air. It is time for the stables to be cleansed.

David Cameron needs to do one of his sinuous U-turns on this. But he may turn out to be too afraid of the combined power of Mr Murdoch’s four national newspapers to do so. Which would rather suggest that there is too much power in the hands of this particular media mogul already.

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