Testifying on Tuesday before Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson's inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, former U.K. Prime Minister John Major revealed under oath one of the ways Murdoch does business. Major explained that in a meeting with the global press baron in February 1997, Murdoch demanded that Major reverse the nation's policies regarding U.K. participation in the European Union. Major refused.
As Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes in The New York Review of Books, the following U.K. prime minister, Tony Blair, traveled to Australia in 1995 to pay tribute to Murdoch by speaking to Murdoch's corporate gathering and gave "a speech that made it clear that he stood well to the right of any previous Labour leader." Wheatcroft adds that The Sun, one of Murdoch's U.K. tabloids, "duly supported Blair through three general elections."
Lo and behold, in the summer of 2004, Prime Minister Blair undertook what Wheatcroft terms "a bewildering volte-face" and announced -- against the wishes of his own supporters -- a referendum on U.K. participation in the European Union. This was an obvious "sop to the Europhobe Murdoch," Wheatcroft writes, "to ensure the Sun's continuing support at the election due the next spring."
Was this a quid pro quo? That's hardly necessary, the author points out. "Murdoch did not have to beseech politicians; they came to him, desperate for his support." Wheatcroft cites the testimony of an ex-aide to Blair who termed Murdoch to be an "invisible twenty-fifth presence at the Cabinet table."
The current government under Prime Minister David Cameron, of course, brought former News of the World editor Andy Coulson -- along with other Murdoch employees -- directly into the government as his spokesperson, despite receiving private warnings from Guardianeditor Alan Rusbridger and former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown about the potentially embarrassing, if not criminal, activity that shadowed Coulson's editorship.
This is one way Murdoch's power operated in Britain. But it's only one -- and there were many, as the various testimonies before the Leveson inquiry have demonstrated. When former Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- Prime Minister Blair's successor -- testified, for example, he blamed Murdoch for undermining the United Kingdom's war effort in Afghanistan. This may or may not have been the case, however, as Prime Minister Brown clearly had political reasons for that accusation.
But even more alarming was the discussion of how The Sun, then under the authority of the now-indicted Rebekah Brooks, revealed the cystic fibrosis diagnosis of the Browns' son, Fraser. "I don't think any child's medical information should be broadcast," Brown complained. "There was no question ever of implicit or explicit permission." The story, he was told, was a "fait accompli." When Brooks testified before the commission, she insisted that the information had come from another parent, and the health authorities involved with the case issued a statement saying there had been "no inappropriate access to the child's medical records."
But one has to ask: Why in the world is a newspaper reporting on the medical condition of a politician's child when the family wishes to deal with it privately? What national interest can possibly justify this massive and cruel invasion of privacy at so difficult a moment?
The only answer is that the paper sought to punish Prime Minister Brown for refusing to play ball with Murdoch the way Prime Minister Blair did...
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