Rupert Murdoch

Britain (and the BBC) discover the length, width and depth of the shaft

Gideon has spoken and the Coalition government has finally passed sentence on the public sector, outlining £81bn of spending cuts over four years. The Chancellor delivered his long-awaited (feared?) Comprehensive Spending Review to the Commons yesterday in a carefully crafted statement aimed at blunting Labour criticisms of the severity of the cuts. Announcing a 19% cut across departmental budgets, Osborne drew a contrast with Labour’s pre-election plans to halve the deficit which would still have involved reductions of 20% across the same areas. (The difference will be made up by an additional £7bn raid on the welfare budget, we are told.)

In many respects the statement was reminiscent of the Gordon Brown Budgets after 1997 – expectation lowered in the press in the lead-up to the announcement, final proposals that don’t seem too bad compared to what was feared, and a well-spun political presentation of the end result. Brown’s Budgets also had a knack of unravelling in the days after the announcement as those in the know started to probe the detail, but we’ll have to wait to see if Osborne’s statement goes the same way.

In spite of the spin, there will still be savage cuts. Police budgets will be cut by 16% over four years, councils will face cuts of nearly 30%, and the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice will see their budgets cut by 6% a year. And, regardless of Osborne’s wearying claim that “we’re all in this together”, it seems very clear that those most well off (including those – like Gideon – who live off £4m trust funds) will hardly see the same destructive effect on their lives as will surely be suffered by those at the other end of the income scale. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies is already highlighting the review’s harshest impact (surprise surprise) on the poorest in society.

Submerged in all the talk of spending cuts, the details of the Coalition’s shafting of the BBC also came to light this week, thereby completing the first part of the Conservative Party’s Faustian pact with Rupert Murdoch. As the Guardian outlines here the licence fee will be frozen for six years, which represents a real terms cut of 16%, and out of the reduced budget the BBC will have to divert money to the World Service (currently funded in part by the Foreign Office) and Welsh language broadcaster S4C. It’s perhaps quite telling that the BBC had privately feared far worse.

The second, and potentially even more alarming part of the Murdoch appeasement plan is still to come and relates to the media giant’s desire to assume complete control of BSkyB – a move which will be decided on by the Business Secretary (and erstwhile darling of, well, just about everybody) Vince Cable. As David Puttnam passionately argued in The Observer last month, the delicate balance of the British media and therefore the framing of debate in this country is under serious threat from this proposal.

These are pivotal moments for the future of the media in the UK. Commercial broadcasters have always complained about the dominance of the BBC, often with some justification, but the Murdoch approach is a rather different beast altogether. Not content with a simple wrecking ball approach to the Corporation (enthusiastically wielded by the Coalition) he also wishes to consolidate his grip on the British commercial media at a time when no one is really certain about how broadcasting or the press will evolve in an age when the internet continues to expand at an almost exponential rate.

As the FT’s Martin Wolf argues, Vince Cable has a golden opportunity to try to restore some semblance of ‘fairness’ to the Coalition’s already tarnished reputation. One can only hope that he puts a stop to the impression of the timidity of the Coalition (and indeed, every government since 1979) around the Murdoch empire. The government has showed its willingness to ‘fearlessly’ wield the axe on public services – an ounce of that determination should now be directed towards resisting Murdoch. The consequences of the cuts are not yet fully understood, but protecting the plurality of the British media surely has to be that rarest of bonuses for the Coalition: a relatively easy win.

The Wisdom of George

Steve Richards of The Independent tweets that we should not be surprised if George Osborne performs a u-turn over the controversial Child Benefit cut for high earners announced at the Tory Party Conference this week. The point Richards makes is that, while in Opposition, Cameron and Osborne quite frequently ‘flip-flopped’, to use the dreadful American parlance, at the first sign of serious media scrutiny of policy. “They are weak” he writes and, for all the tough rhetoric on tackling the deficit, there is more than a grain of truth to the remark.

My sense from the outside is that Osborne will probably stick by the announcement on child benefit, in spite of the rage from certain sections of the press, and try to paper over the cracks by making the sort of vacuous, moralising intervention on marriage that has already been indicated. I may not know a great deal about Osborne’s mindset but experience demonstrates that, given a range of options, instinct normally leads him towards the wrong one.

Perhaps the middle class outrage at the (frankly quite messy) changes to Child Benefit is the start of something faintly encouraging. I don’t mean in the sense that Women’s Institutes the length and breadth of Britain will start to become more politically engaged, but that – finally – there is a flicker of scrutiny of Tory policy from the party’s friends in the right-wing press. This is unlikely to unleash a full-scale examination of the darkness at the heart of the Conservative world view – the Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch propaganda sheets know where their bread is buttered – but the press may yet find it hard to supress their natural instinct to hunt down an individual when they scent weakness. Osborne may have some difficult months ahead of him.

It’s hard to see how Osborne can find himself in a position to pull any rabbits out of the hat. The economic situation is bleak and by any measure he was a strange choice for Chancellor given the options available to David Cameron when the Coalition was formed. Both Vince Cable and Kenneth Clarke were clearly better qualified for the job and there can be little doubt that Osborne holds his position (arguably the first ‘proper’ job of his life) purely as a result of the personal loyalty of the Prime Minister. Such loyalty is worth a great deal of course, as the continual, bewildering survival of Andy Coulson demonstrates, but is it really doing anyone any favours?

The coming months will test the Coalition to breaking point. The government will inevitably become increasingly unpopular as the cuts start to bite, and much pressure will fall on the Liberal Democrat involvement, depending on next year’s elections and the outcome of the AV Referendum. Crucial at such times is the work and vision of the Treasury, as the fulcrum of the business of government. The biggest worry for the Coalition must be that so much therefore depends on the wisdom – or otherwise – of George Osborne.

So, is Andy Coulson off the hook?

Just a matter of days ago there seemed to be no way for Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s Director of Communications, to save his job. The growing clamour and drip-feed of testimony to his involvement in the News Of The World phone-hacking scandal was, a very short time ago, threatening to suck the life out of his Downing Street career.

Yet here we are, 21 days after the New York Times re-launched the story, and still Coulson shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

The story itself is a fairly unpleasant and unsettling one. The essence of it is that, during Coulson’s time at the News Of The World, the paper’s journalists (allegedly) frequently and systematically hacked into the voicemail accounts of a large number of celebrities and public figures in pursuit of a scoop. Many of these figures have launched legal actions against the NOTW and, in some cases, the Metropolitan Police for their apparent lack of concern in informing those whose phones may have been hacked. (Coulson denies any wrongdoing, or indeed knowledge, of any illegal practices which may have taken place during his period as editor, although he did resign in 2007 following the jailing of his Royal Correspondent, Clive Goodman.) It is further alleged that strong links between the NOTW and the Met have led to a less than thorough investigation into these allegations. Much of the background to this story can be found on The Guardian website.

The Guardian does rather seem to be ploughing a lone furrow on this story, although there has been a certain degree of follow-up from The Independent and the broadcast media. Beyond that, there are large chunks of the print media who simply haven’t gone anywhere near this story.

And why would that be, you might ask yourself? Is it because this alleged large-scale criminal activity is a complete non-story? Unlikely, I would suggest. If there was the merest suggestion that the BBC had been up to these tricks the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and the entire Murdoch stable would have been all over this story like a rash – and rightly so.

Is it because the right-wing press don’t want to rock the boat for their new friends in Downing Street? Possibly, and Coulson’s personal relationships with individual journalists may well have played some part in the dampening down of the story. But I still believe (perhaps naively) that most journalists know when they have to put personal and professional links aside in pursuit of the truth – unless of course, their very jobs are at stake due to pressure from above.

And this raises the other possibility: if phone-hacking really was rife at the News Of The World, how much of a leap of faith would it be to assume that it is common in other sections of what we used to call Fleet Street? Could certain newspapers simply be following the biblical directive to ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’?

Maybe new life will be breathed into this story when the various victims’ legal challenges approach their conclusions. It may even turn out that nothing can be pinned on Coulson from his time at the News Of The World. But this whole episode currently reveals the lack of will for the truth from large sections of the media, and invites one to draw the very worst conclusions about the motives behind this failure.

The BBC, Murdoch and the Tories

Jeremy Hunt’s recent statement on the BBC Licence Fee represents the coalition government’s opening salvo in what threatens to be a highly unedifying assault on the Corporation. In all probability (in spite of all the government’s noises, backed up by their cheerleaders in the right-wing press) this will have very little to do with fairness, funding or the quality of programming. It represents the first time in thirteen years that the favourite sport of ‘Beeb-bashing’ is spiced up with the addition of sharp teeth to Tory prejudice in the form of ministerial office.

Hunt said, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that:

“there is a moment when elected politicians have an opportunity to influence the BBC and it happens every five years. It is when the licence fee is renewed.

“That will be happening next year. That will be the moment when I use my electoral mandate [sic] to say to the BBC now, going forward for the next five years, these are what we think your priorities need to be and there are huge numbers of things that need to be changed at the BBC. They need to demonstrate the very constrained financial situation we are now in.”

There will, of course, be a strong argument for tackling executive pay (although the Tories don’t seem quite so keen to deal with this issue in too many other sectors) but any cuts forced on the BBC will almost inevitably have the effect of impacting on output. Love or loathe the Licence Fee, the Corporation produces some of the very best programming in the world of television and radio, has one of the best web resources available, and produces arguably the most trusted news output in the world. The BBC is also one of the world’s top brand names and does not make a loss.

Of course, the real driver behind the government’s assault on the BBC is the Tory Party’s perceived dependence on the Murdoch Press. Like Tony Blair before him, David Cameron was keen to court the approval of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper prior to this year’s General Election and it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that the debt is now being called in. James Murdoch (Rupert’s representative on Earth) has been complaining for some time about what he sees as the anti-competitive effect the BBC has on the media marketplace, and particularly on the web. This last aspect is especially of concern to an organisation which has just placed The Times’ online content behind a paywall in an attempt to forge a new income stream to replace the diminishing returns of the ‘Dead Tree’ press.

The Licence Fee is the easy stick with which to beat the BBC, but it is also the mechanism which enables the Corporation to maintain the quality it does while also catering for unfashionable areas (such as culture) which commercial broadcasters won’t touch with a bargepole. Murdoch dreams of a world in which Fox News (Fair and Balanced™) is the model for how news is provided in every country in the western world, but as long as the BBC produce an alternative which is trusted by many more than depend on commercial alternatives, domination of the British media market will have to wait.

All of this chimes with a Tory Party which instinctively wants to fillet a BBC which they see as a hotbed of subversion and anti-establishment intrigue. Once again it falls to the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government to curb the mouth-foaming excesses of its senior partner. Let’s hope they can summon the strength and the will to protect, what I believe, is an organisation Licence Fee payers should be rightly proud of.

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A little early for control-freakery, don’t you think?

I was slightly surprised to hear that the national Tory/Lib Dem coalition refused to send a representative to sit on the BBC Question Time panel last night. The official reason given was that Labour’s panel member came in the shape of the unelected Alastair Campbell, and that the party should have sent a front-bencher to discuss policy. The result was a stand-off, with the government demanding Campbell’s removal and the BBC – rightly – pointing out that it isn’t for Downing Street to choose the Question Time panel. The other-worldly John Redwood presumably leapt at the chance to step in when the BBC came calling for a replacement.

(I should declare an interest here in that I rarely watch Question Time. I used to enjoy shouting at the television for an hour on a Thursday night, practically foaming at the mouth at the soundbites and the deceptions, but these days I’d probably rather curl up with a good book.)

The decision by the Labour Party to send a media man like Campbell, rather than a Shadow Minister, is perhaps a little odd in the week of the Queen’s Speech, but it’s nowhere near as odd as the government refusing to turn-up. Alastair Campbell is famous for his combative style, but I can’t imagine any would-be government representative would have been scared to face him (a little anxious, maybe).

Instead, this would appear to be an attempt by the new government to flex its muscles in the direction of the BBC. It is an early sign of the same control-freakery which quickly poisoned the New Labour project and I strongly hope it fails.

I’ve written before about the BBC and what an asset the corporation is to this country, and it’s no surprise to me that the Tories are attempting to get a few early hits in, using Campbell as their cover. It will be a dark prospect indeed if the Lib Dems, as coalition partners, join in the Murdoch-fuelled assault on this bastion of impartiality which is so highly regarded around the world.

The alternative to the BBC is to go down the route of Sky News, with creeping opinion-forming and skewing of the news agenda. Murdoch has ‘previous’, of course, having given birth to the ugly partisan beast otherwise known as Fox News, and incidents involving Sky’s Kay Burley and Adam Boulton have given an indication of the direction of travel in the immediate aftermath of the General Election result. The most notorious example was Boulton’s, and so here is the video. It includes some chap called Campbell…

(See also: Mark Reckons – BBC Question Time Alastair Campbell debacle)

The courage to change

Many things are uncertain over the coming days. Will there be a hung parliament? Will Labour finish third? Will Cameron pull it off at the last? Are the Liberal Democrats on the brink of a role in government? How would a coalition government look? How would electoral reform change the way our political process takes place? These are all good questions about the coming ‘change’, and I am in the uncomfortable position of having the answers to none of them.

That’s the thing about change generally – deep down most of us don’t really like it. We’re suspicious of it, we tend to wonder why things can’t stay as they are and, if change is forced upon us, we worry about how we will be affected by the new way of doing things.

Even the most casual observer will have noticed that ‘change’ has been the most over-used word of the 2010 General Election (the candidates’ homage to the 2008 Obama campaign) but each of the three main parties have a very different view of what that word means.

The Tories seem to think it simply means a change back to their way of doing things. They view the period since 1997 as an aberration, an electoral mistake that ushered in an era of ‘political correctness’, ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ and ‘feminazism’. Not for them the touchy-feely, faux-empathy of the Blair sofa government years – people must be governed, not related to.

But, as far as the Tories are concerned, by far the worst thing about the last thirteen years is that they haven’t been in charge. The sole purpose of the 2010 Tory campaign is, in their eyes, to put that right. This is the arrogance born of their long eighteen year stint in charge under Thatcher and Major, and the programme for government they offer this time appears little more than a reheating of their 1980s persona but with a slightly less shrill tone. We have the über-vacuous “Big Society” (essentially “rolling back the state” and hoping the slack is picked up by volunteers); the ageless Tory passion for shifting the emphasis of taxation away from the wealthy and (through indirect means, such as an inevitable hike in VAT) back onto the less well-off; a thinly hidden agenda of dismantling public services; moralising, meaningless and prescriptive nonsense about marriage.

Simply turning the clock back doesn’t look much like change from where I’m standing.

Of course the reform the Conservatives will have absolutely no truck with is a move to a fair voting system. Liberal Democrats have long believed in an electoral system where everyone’s vote counts, as opposed to the current medieval system where the votes of only a few thousand electors in marginal constituencies decide who governs us. Funnily enough, the Tories – as beneficiaries of the system – see no need to interfere with the current arrangements. They dishonestly peddle the argument that with first-past-the-post you can “throw a government out” while ignoring the obvious point that making everyone’s vote count would do more than anything else to engage people in the political life of the country. Perhaps David Cameron’s attitude to renewal is best summed up in this week’s (superb) Observer editorial: “He defines change in politics as the old system preserved – but run by the Tories”.

Labour’s claims of renewal are left sounding all the more hollow after thirteen years of failure and missed opportunity. To be fair to Labour, there is much that they can be proud of (the minimum wage, for example) but their 2010 campaign seemingly consists of pointing to the things they did well and scaremongering about any change to their way of doing things. Their death bed conversion to partial electoral reform only serves to highlight their failure to fulfill their 1997 promise (which I voted for at the time) to hold a referendum on proportional representation. Instead their term of government has been stained with authoritarianism (ID cards, detention without trial) and illegal foreign wars. To try to claim now that their’s really is a progressive philosophy is frankly laughable.

The only real change on offer in this election comes from the Liberal Democrats. The theme that runs through everything is fairness – a fairer tax system, a fresh look at education, a genuine commitment to the environment, a Freedom Bill to restore and protect civil liberties, an honest dialogue about immigration (as opposed to the hysterical dogwhistling of Labour and the Tories) and proper, meaningful reform of the political system.

Predictably the Tory press have waded in to this wide-open election with unprecedented levels of bile being heaped on Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats and any notion of a hung parliament. The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Telegraph et al may have had their say, but there are signs too that they have had their day. Murdoch, in particular, knows that if the Tories don’t get in then he and his media empire will be cast adrift for the first time in a generation – another change worth voting for.

The truth is that the crisis at the heart of the government and the financial system is such that we need people to work together to put it right. Labour and the Conservatives have each taken turns to run the economy over the last sixty-five years, and this is where it’s led us. The old ways haven’t worked – it’s time for a fresh look, a new approach.

It takes courage to change, but change is what this country needs. We need to take a bold step towards real change at the ballot box this Thursday. The Tories can’t offer anything other than a return to an even older way of doing things than that offered by an exhausted Labour Party. There’s only one way to make a real difference this week: vote Liberal Democrat.

The Second Leaders’ Debate

Last night Bristol hosted the second televised Leaders’ Debate of the 2010 General Election. The event was staged by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News but, unlike ITV, NewsCorp did allow the live footage to be streamed to the BBC News Channel. However, interest seems to have dipped as early indications suggest that combined viewing figures were in the region of 4 million (compared with figures of 9.9 million for the previous week).

Indeed, there did seem to be less of an edge to last night’s event, as if the novelty of seeing our party leaders debating on television had already worn off. Perhaps there will be a raising of expectations for the third, and final, debate on the BBC next week as the choices become starker and the stakes become higher.

Clegg maintained the standard he set in the first debate at Manchester. Considering the tone of yesterday’s media coverage (in particular the Telegraph, Sun and Mail) and the weight that the level of Tory press smearing must have put on his shoulders, he showed real strength to top all but one of the post debate polls. I can only imagine the pressure that must have been on Clegg to perform to the same level as last time, but perform he did. He stuck to the same tactic of directly addressing the viewing public, seemed relaxed, and his answers were clear and to the point. Perhaps his main triumph was to look more human than Brown and less condescending than Cameron.

Both Brown and Cameron tried to play the “look at those two” card that Clegg carried off so well the previous week, but when they did it it looked like a focus-grouped tactic that each had suddenly remembered to deploy. Clegg does it naturally because the Lib Dems truly are the outsiders in Westminster politics.

Cameron certainly improved on the workmanlike performance he put in in Manchester, but Tory talk in the run-up to the debate of him “pulling a rabbit out of the hat” still looked wildly optimistic. Of course, the Tory press (still in denial over its total lack of influence over this election) has tried to spin their man to victory in the morning papers but the truth is that Cameron is still having nowhere near the impact on the campaign that had been predicted by just about everybody. Perhaps, in the heat of the campaign, people have started to see through the personality cult and the Blairesque spin. Indeed this is backed up by ICM’s poll straight after the debate which found that 47% believed Cameron was more spin than substance compared to 28% for Brown and just 19% for Clegg. The Tory leader has one last televised debate to find that rabbit.

Considering he is still – for two more weeks at least – the Prime Minister, it’s surprising just how quickly Gordon Brown has become the forgotten man of the debates. You could argue this works in his favour as he likes to paint himself as a man who simply gets on with the real job, a man who has no time for the flashy superficiality of Cameron, but in truth the Brown Premiership is dying a slow death before our eyes. Here he was plodding and over-technical, and his occasional attempts at humour looked desperately over-rehearsed. Perhaps the most damning thing I could say about any Prime Minister is that I feel sorry for him, but this is indeed the case now for Brown.

Adam Boulton was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night. Right from the start he appeared to be more nervous than any of the party leaders, and he did seem to develop a knack of talking over all three for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate the ‘silent audience’ rule which governs the debate. I think it would be unedifying in the extreme to have the leaders heckled by party stooges. At least this way we are free to make up our own minds.

And so we look to the Midlands for next week’s BBC debate. Clegg will look to maintain his level of performance whereas Cameron has a final chance to put in the performance everyone has expected. Brown, it seems, will simply be glad it’s all over.