Understandably the Leveson Inquiry has concentrated on the misdeeds of journalists and the behaviour of newspaper owners. However, the appearance of a series of figures this week at Leveson could – indeed should – have highlighted how often the power lies with politicians, not the media. We had three figures appear who all, in their own very different ways, showed that despite all the talk of politicians been cowed by the media, it is far from uncommon for politicians to have far too much power over the media.
Figure one: Gordon Brown. I’ve often asked Labour Party and civil service figures quite why it was that so many people, not only outside but inside the Labour Party, were highly critical of Gordon Brown and yet then he was elected party leader unopposed. The answers they give me, some based on first hand experience, mirror what the better journalists of the era reported: many people were scared, intimidated or just plain put off by seeing what Team Brown did to its opponents through briefings to the press that could be at best distorted and at worst deceitful.
Far too often Team Brown were able to beat up on their opponents or possible rivals by getting stories run in the media that should have shamed any media outlet even half-interested in presenting honest and accurate coverage. Yes, the media deserve criticism for that – but the problem was as much the power Team Brown was able to exercise over the media, helped by competitive journalists eagerly chasing stories, tightness of budgets seeing journalists looking for the easy story rather than digging out the truth, and by the combination of media non-regulation and expensive to use laws that meant the victims of such ‘news’ usually had little redress.
Figure two: John Major. The former Prime Minister, and also the man who nearly drove the New Statesman into bankruptcy in a libel action over a story reporting that there were rumours about his private life. Never mind that the New Statesman wasn’t saying the rumours were true, but was simply reporting on the facts of their existence. Never mind that what we have since learned from Edwina Currie makes John Major’s claimed outrage over the reporting of rumours of him being an adulterer look rather different. The fact is that he nearly drove a national magazine out of business by targeting not only the magazine but its printers, wholesalers and distributors in a broad and expensive legal action.
You can still have a lively debate about the rights or wrongs of that magazine’s story, but for a politician to nearly close a national magazine (and one in rather better health than it is today!) is again a major display of politician power over the media even if one that incremental changes to libel laws has altered.
Figure three: Nick Clegg. In his case, the power was not his, but was of others. The Conservative Party to be precise. As Phil Cowley has reported the barrage of negative stories about Nick Clegg on the morning of the second TV debate in 2010 was planted by the Conservative Party: “All but one of the stories to feature on newspaper front pages on the day of the second TV debate came from Conservative sources.”
That is remarkably sweeping influence for a political party to secure, dominating the front pages of national newspapers with stories provided by it – and all published without giving away their origins. What was presented as spontaneous independent journalistic research was in fact a coordinated put up job by political opponents.
Again, journalists and their editors deserve criticism for taking the stories en masse and running them without crediting their origins or even properly questioning their validity. But this isn’t just a story about how the media behaves, once again it is also a story about how at times those in politics have far too much power over what appears in the media.
But that, alas, is a story Leveson doesn’t appear to want to know about.