This should have been a disastrous day for David Cameron. His former Director of Communications, Andy Coulson, whom he hired despite advice from senior media figures and evidence of widespread wrongdoing in Coulson’s past as a tabloid editor, is being questioned by police. And yet, somehow, despite a very awkward press conference, David Cameron appears to be marching in step on regulation of the press. It is appearance only. One of the reasons for this apparent proactivity is the caution of Ed Miliband’s speech this morning which created room for manoeuvre for the Prime Minister.
What is clear from Miliband’s speech is that he hasn’t quite got himself into an place where the first law of politics – thou shalt not confront News International – can be broken. This morning’s speech was perfectly worthy. A week ago it would have been a brave and courageous speech. Unfortunately, the moment is now bigger. This speech didn’t match the gravity of the situation and it wasn’t sufficient to the task at hand.
What is the task? Ed Miliband defined it himself. It is about a systematic and fundamental abuse of power by a media organisation. That abuse is not about a single paper – now closed for commercial beneficial reasons, throwing 200 innocent journalists overboard in the process. It is the about the power of a network of companies. Their newspapers have sanctioned illegal acts. They have not been open about the wrong-doing. They have seemingly corrupted officers of the law. They have failed to take any real responsibility for this web of deceit, corruption, and grotesque tastelessness. They have been able to act in this way for a simple reason: they are too powerful.
Having posed the right essay question, Miliband then flunked it. We were told that we are faced with a news organisation that has engaged in a systematic abuse of power. And yet, despite this, he ended the speech talking about reform of a minor self-regulatory body that even if people have heard of it’s about as important to them as the Zoos Forum. It’s largely an irrelevance. And whoever is to fundamentally blame in this, it’s not Baroness Buscombe and her merry bunch.
David Cameron was able to match Miliband’s substantive demands on a judge-led inquiry into the phone hacking and related illegalities and corruption. He went further on the Zoos Forum, er, the Press Complaints Commission in calling for an independent body of press regulation. He dealt with Rebekah Brooks – he would have accepted her resignation. He’s completely at sea when it comes to Andy Coulson: it was a monumental error of judgement to hire him. Some of that will stick – this is David Cameron’s Bernie Ecclestone moment. That will play itself out. But on the substance – what happens to confront the over-weaning power of a news organisation whose executives seem anything but ‘fit and proper’ – he’s matching Ed Miliband blow for blow.
I’ll repeat what I wrote on Labour Uncut yesterday: when information empires become too powerful they have to be broken up. News International and connected companies have become more powerful. They should be broken up. The sensible route would be to: limit ownership to one daily and one Sunday paper with a limit of the newspaper readership on any given day; a more stringent limit of cross-media ownership; a tougher ‘fit and proper’ test; and a stricter separation of content provision from carriage. Rejecting the BSkyB bid is barely the start of it.
David Cameron will sustain ongoing damage to perceptions of his judgement. He’s known this ‘Andy Coulson moment’ was coming for a while. This is about his judgement but it’s bigger than that too. It’s about power and abuse of power. Labour had the opportunity to own that discussion today. That it doesn’t is deeply disappointing.
The Sun won’t be backing Labour at the next election unless Labour looks like it’s marching to victory. Now is the moment for Labour to free itself from News International’s grip on its political mindset and speak with a full voice on behalf of the British public. The Prime Minister did not get a grip on this whatever his claims. Labour’s caution gave him the opportunity to look like he was. Hopefully, the moment hasn’t passed. Oh, and Rupert Murdoch will smiling to himself at today’s course of diversionary events.