How will the recent media scandals change the relationship between the press and politicians?
In many ways, not that much will be different. Politicians and journalists will still have their secret contacts, and will use each other to advance their own interests just as they always have, but then these issues were never really the problem. The issue was that too much power was concentrated in the hands of a single individual – Rupert Murdoch, who had, or at least was thought to have by politicians, the power to win elections.
There is now a real chance that this will change, and that we will see a return to a more pluralistic media industry that will serve the public interest much better. Is phone hacking really just a proxy issue that al- lows MPs to tackle Murdoch’s political influence? Up to a point. The turning point was when Cameron made his ‘mea culpa’ speech, when he directly admitted that politicians, including him, ‘were so keen to win the support of newspapers that they turned a blind eye’, and has become the first Prime Minister to do so publicly.
Murdoch’s influence has been a taboo topic ever since Tony Blair first started courting him back in the 90s; the phone hacking scandal hasn’t so much allowed politicians to talk about Murdoch as forced them to, and the damage done to Jeremy Hunt, as well as David Cameron, shows that the Murdochs can still bite back if they want to.
What might future press regulation look like as a result of the Levenson Inquiry?
I think most people are agreed on the fundamentals. First, no one wants state regulation – for example, no one wants a system in which you have to get permission of a judge to disclose certain kinds of information, which would sacrifice too much for the sake of privacy. However, the Press Complaints Commission needs more power, perhaps even statutory powers. It needs the power to fine papers and the ability to investigate without a complaint being made, and it needs to have authority over all media outlets in the country, not just those that choose to participate. It’s all quite undramatic, but will likely be effective at curtailing the nastier side of the press.
Are all the parties equally at risk in this scandal?
Cameron’s in power, so ultimately he is most at risk of a public backlash. The real question is whether Ed Miliband can distance himself from News International, as he is trying to do at the moment. It may well not work though; after all, Margaret Thatcher may have been the first leader to take advantage of Murdoch’s support, but Blair was still the first to actively court him, to actually go and ask for his backing. Voters will remember this (Blair is still godfather to one of Murdoch’s children, after all), so it’s more likely that Labour and the Tories are in this together.
How might the shift from print to internet affect relations between the press and the politicians?
It’s fair to say that power is being diluted, although newspapers are still the agenda-setters in this country. British television is regulated so that it is obliged to portray both sides of an issue in a neutral way, which means that British news channels don’t have the influence over public opinion that, for example, Fox does in the US. However, it’s now much harder to completely control all means of communication with a slice of the electorate, as Murdoch was able to do, there are just too many other sources of news now. Newspapers aren’t finished yet, but I don’t think that anyone will be able to recreate the kind of control that Murdoch has had over the British media.
Steven Hewlett is a journalist, broadcaster and media consultant.