London theatre is undergoing one of its periodic revivals at present with Terence Rattigan’s centenary just behind us and the umpteenth revival of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever gaining golden reviews at the theatre named after him. Even so, the hottest show in town is the daily performance of the Leveson Inquiry into relations between politicians and the press. A few weeks ago Rupert Murdoch was the star witness, on Monday it was Tony Blair, and Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to testify shortly. Star power of such dazzling quality is in short supply – especially in Parliament itself, which parliamentary stars such as Mr. Cameron avoid as much as they can.
That said, it’s hard to know exactly where the inquiry is going. It began as an investigation into Fleet Street’s use of such illegal techniques as phone-hacking. Everyone knows that this and other questionable methods have been widely used by most titles in the British media for some time. It may well be that The Sun and the former News of the World in Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation employed them more thoroughly and more blatantly than other media; it currently looks as if they did. But everyone knows that most media groups have used them to some extent. Even The Guardian, which was early in pursuing this story, has an investigative reporter who justifies phone-hacking provided it is used for virtuous purposes and, by implication, therefore enjoys a public-interest defence.
Only last week BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman revealed to the inquiry that CNN’s star interviewer, Piers Morgan, had given him instructions on how to hack a phone in one easy lesson after hinting amiably that he had hacked the phone of another guest at the same lunch. Mr. Morgan, a former editor of the News of the World and of its left-wing rival, the Daily Mirror, has consistently denied indulging in such illegality. The plot thickens – or rather widens.
If Leveson were confined to illegal phone-hacking and similar matters, it could quickly conclude with a proposal that such matters be handled by a special committee of a larger body regulating the media. The precise composition of such a body is something we could debate endlessly – and we will. Almost certainly, however, the result will be something closer to the official end of the spectrum. It doesn’t matter much, however, because the argument is really about who gains politically from media freedom, on the one hand, and greater regulation on the other.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to see the Murdoch press restrained, even (ideally) destroyed, because they see it as an obstacle to the kind of progressive, internationalist and socially radical politics they favour. That’s a rational motive. But it is interesting that it looms at least as large at the inquiry as whether Mr. Murdoch was seeking to gain straightforward commercial advantages from his influence with political leaders. One of the questions frequently asked – of both Mr. Murdoch and his supposed collaborators such as Mr. Blair and Mr. Cameron – is whether he sought to persuade them to adopt anti-European policies, for example, to oppose the euro. But why? It would have been perfectly legitimate for Mr. Murdoch to reply: “I and my editors strongly favour keeping the pound. We could not support you if you were to adopt the euro.” (It would also have been far more farsighted than most thinking of the day.)
This emphasis also suggests that his enemies don’t really mind about Mr. Murdoch’s pursuit of his commercial interests. It’s his strictly political influence they writhe under. Hence their constant stress on Mr. Murdoch doing unspecified dirty deals with everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Mr. Cameron.
These arguments generally come down to driving inferences off a cliff. If A met with B and subsequently B prospered, then he must have bribed A in some way. Mr. Blair escaped quite unscathed from the inquiry’s cross-examination – for the good and sufficient reason outlined by John Rentoul in The Independent: Mr. Murdoch enjoyed more or less the same degree of influence in the British media after Mr. Blair as he had enjoyed before. He had gained in some areas and lost in others.
Mrs. Thatcher similarly was accused of having given Mr. Murdoch control of The Times in return for his political support. But no evidence of such a deal was presented – again for a good and sufficient reason. No deal was needed. All Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Murdoch had to do was to follow their own individual interests – and the results of that would be the same as the results of a dirty deal.
Where the danger to Mr. Cameron lies is that, almost alone among the major British figures with whom Mr. Murdoch has dealt in the last 40 years, he seems to have felt that a deal was necessary – or at least the e-mails from his associates strongly suggest so. Also, the ownership of Sky TV is a commercial matter rather than a strictly political one. Finally, Mr. Murdoch seems to feel no particular sympathy for Mr. Cameron, who (he perhaps thinks) may have hung him out to dry in the Leveson sun.
Which is why the Prime Minister’s appearance will probably be the most dramatic one so far.
John O’Sullivan, a former special adviser to Margaret Thatcher, is editor-at-large of National Review.