Opinion: Liberal Democrats didn’t just avoid Murdoch, we tried to cut him down to size

In my last post for Lib Dem Voice, I pointed out that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems had never courted Murdoch and his cronies.

Actually, that was just the half of it.

We didn’t just avoid him. We have tried, in different ways over a number of years, to cut the media mogul down to size and clamp down on the sort of abhorrent media practices that have been exposed of late.

As far back as 1994, the year before Tony Blair chose to fly to Oz to lick Rupert Murdoch’s boots, we were calling for the OFT to investigate predatory pricing by the Murdoch-owned Times.

Three years later, when the new Labour government’s Competition Bill was outlawing predatory pricing in other industries, but curiously not newspapers, we fought to try to get them included too. We also managed to inflict a humiliating government defeat on the subject in the Lords in the process.

That was courtesy of Tom McNally, who in 2003 succeeded in beefing up the government’s media plurality regulations in the Communications Bill.

When the Lords debated media plurality in the light of the BSkyB takeover last November, Labour’s Lord Puttnam remarked:

In truth, the only party that has consistently taken a thoughtfully independent position on this issue has been the Liberal Democrats. In this context, when I use the word “independent”, I am referring to the Lib Dem leadership having felt itself free of prejudicial outside influences.

When the first stories about phone hacking dribbled out in 2009, Lib Dems were quick off the mark, using all the powers at our disposal to raise the issue and call for action (although, as the third party those powers were rather limited). We called for emergency statements in the House, questioned Andy Coulson’s role, called for an IPCC inquiry into the Met’s original phone hacking investigation and called for a judicial inquiry to boot.

In terms of clamping down on the grubby tactics of British tabloid hacks, we were calling for bugging private property to be outlawed as far back as 1992 and wanted aggressive media harassment to be made a criminal offence in 1994.

In 2003, we backed calls for a ban on newspapers and private detectives making payments to police officers and just last Autumn our conference called for an overhaul of the lame Press Complaints Commission, a chorus Labour and the Tories have only now joined.

Oh, and then there’s the small matter of Vince Cable declaring war on Murdoch last year. Shame how that worked out.

Some of this stuff may sound pretty small fry but there’s a limit to what a third party can do while the two bigger ones are fawning over Murdoch like Playboy bunnies at a Hugh Hefner pool party.

Bear in mind that while all this was going on, Blair got as close to Murdoch as possible without actually asking him out, Brown and Cameron were attending Rebekah Brooks’ wedding, and Cameron and Miliband were hiring his former staff and attending his summer parties.

My point is that the Liberal Democrats have a track record of standing up to Rupert Murdoch. Labour and the Tories have done the opposite. I for one am happy that it looks like he might finally get his comeuppance.

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38 Comments

  • Good article.

    Paddy raised Murdoch’s worrying influence at PMQs as well –

    Mr. Ashdown: Surely the real issue is not who said what, when and to whom, but whether the Prime Minister understands why there is so much widespread concern about the seemingly unstoppable growth in media power and political influence of Mr. Rupert Murdoch.

    The Prime Minister: Of course I understand the concerns that people have. The only issue is whether BSkyB is treated differently from any other media company or significant British company. The answer to that is no.

    Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister’s case seems to be that Mr. Rupert Murdoch is just an ordinary business man, who can be treated like every other ordinary business man. If the Prime Minister believes that, he is just about the only person left in Britain who does. The reality is that one cannot treat somebody who owns a media outlet in the same way as one treats somebody who owns a beans factory. The Prime Minister must realise–I do not understand why he does not–that we must do something about media ownership. The only way of doing so is to amend the Competition Bill, which is to come back before the House in the next few weeks. Will he now see that that is done?
    House of Commons Hansard, 1 April 1998 (http://tinyurl.com/6jbk2ql)

  • So why aren’t we making more out of this situation? We need to make it very clear in the public domain that we were never prepared to get into bed with the Murdochs. I want to see more articles/ press releases from our politicians, this is a perfect opportunity to distinguish ourselves from the Tories and Labour, we shouldn’t allow Ed Miliband take lots of credit for this, he doesn’t deserve it.

    Most of the public find politics boring and and make simple connections between random ‘facts’ they have read in the news, and they don’t know a great deal about us. We need to make sure as many people as possible know our relations with the Murdochs, our previous and present campaigns and we should do this by taking every opportunity to bang on about this.

  • Daniel Henry 12th Jul '11 - 3:03pm

    Does anyone else get the feeling that we perform better in opposition than we do in government? 😉

    Joking aside, this was a great read. As someone relatively new to the party, it was great to see some examples of us managing to affect change, even from the backbenches.

  • Yes the Lib Dems were magnificent and bold in their decades long war against Murdoch. Until you got into power and Vince tried to charm some pretty young lady journalists while Clegg was too cowardly to communicate his concerns about Coulson to Cameron.

    This pious and priggish attempt to paint yourselves as occupying some lofty moral highground are frankly egregious when it has been a handful of Labour MPs and the Guardian who were the truly brave ones in going public long before Murdoch was fatally weakened.

    Yes the Lib Dems are clean, no that does not make you better than them, only less interesting to Murdoch. Try working with the other parties to achieve meaningful reform of the media instead of this self-congratulatory tosh, then you might actually gain some deserved respect.

  • Lorraine and g, you are too tribal to realise that you both support parties that are full of corrput politicians, not only willing to look the other way when newspapers are committing criminal acts against the public, but to support them in their objectives of influencing competition laws, making it harder to stop this bid.

    Cameron looks more spinless than ever, and it makes me laugh that ‘brave’ Ed Miliband is only now seizing the initiative, when 2 weeks ago he was attending Murdoch’s summer bash. Just face it, your parties don’t really stand for anything.

  • @g I understand that both Ashdown and Clegg warned Cameron about Coulson,however Coulson was Cameron’s employee not Clegg’s. And excuse me but Vince made our view perfectly clear to a couple of ‘Bimbos’ employed by another dodgy newspaper owned by another couple of non resident media moguls who don’t pay UK Tax. It is worth mentioning that the useless PCC did manage to criticize the dodgy paper for its underhand tactics.

  • Anon, I’ve voted Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green in various elections. I’m not tribal beyond my centre-leftish confines (the Green vote was complicated)

  • roger, not a single Lib Dem did anything remotely comparable to Chris Bryant & Tom Watson in standing up to their party and to Murdoch for years and in the face of a torrent of abuse, innuendo, smear and ridicule. They put their careers on the line to do this, and knowing what we know now for certain about how NI operate, their privacy and that of their families too. Remarkable bravery, and instead of trying to gather all the glory for yourselves, despite Cable’s wretched handling of the issue as a Minister, you should be acknowledging their efforts and those of The Guardian.

  • Daniel Henry 12th Jul '11 - 5:22pm

    @g

    Ex-Lib Dem or not, you’re still a hater! :p

    You’re right that our primary objective should be building bridges and finding allies in other parties to help us take the right netty action.

  • Daniel Henry 12th Jul '11 - 5:26pm

    @g

    Ex-Lib Dem or not, you’re still a hater! :p

    You’re right that our primary objective should be building bridges and finding allies in other parties to help us take the right necessary action. It weeks be a HUGE shame if tribalism prevented progressives from standing up against Murdoch.

    Even so, you can’t blame us fort blowing our own trumpet a little bit. Since no one else out there is willing to voice the better side to our story what choice do we have but to very the message out ourselves?

  • Daniel Henry 12th Jul '11 - 5:59pm
  • g has it right. Just like student fees the reason the parliamentary party opposes Murdoch is precisely because their opposition is irrelevant. Unlike the Guardian and several Labour MPs, I might add. If Clegg could have curried any favour with Murdoch he would have, he opposes Murdoch because Murdoch isn’t interested in him.

  • LondonLiberal 12th Jul '11 - 6:44pm

    Rob – if you look at the comments made by LibDem Lords and MPs for the last twenty years in the actual article, you’ll see perfectly reasonable and correct positions being taken by LibDems, positions echoed by others outside poltiics who saw the Murdoch influence as corrosive. thsoe comments do not sound like the piqued words fo the igmnored, they are the very decent and pricipled words I remember the libdems as speaking before this wretched coalition. If you are so bound by your tribalism that you aren’t willing to concede that truth, you’re too far gone to have your mind influenced by debate. But whatever youthink about the libdems, consider how pathetically weak and spineless the Labour Party has been (barring occasional honourable exceptions) in trying to wedge itself up NewsCorps backside rather than stand up for pluralism, decency and integrity.

  • @George W. Potte;

    Now I agree with you that the political establishment should be very ashamed, and to be fair to all sides, I think they are and are admitting it. But,

    Can you give examples of any Lib Dem politician, in this parliament or the last, who has been as dogged and as public as Watson and Bryant in their pursuit of Murdoch. Can you give any examples of any Liberal Democrat playing a part in the bringing down of Murdoch, The News of the World and News International on a par with, or marginally less noteworthy than actions of Nick Davies, Alan Rusbridger or The Guardian?

    If you cannot, then I suggest it looks like the current Lib Dem willingness to stamp on the corpse of the slayed dragon is nothing more than opportunistic posturing after other have put life and limb at risk to slay the beast.

    The only Lib Dem politician who came close to getting some glory from this prior to the events of the last week was Vince Cable, and he blew it, horribly, disastrously, and it’s only the hard work of those mentioned above that prevented that from becoming as big a millstone around his neck as his wretched handling of education.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Jul '11 - 8:42am

    @g

    So:
    — two Labour MPs with rock-solid constituencies and low-flying government careers are dogged and brave for standing up to Murdoch, whereas the entire Lib Dem party deserves no credit because they just weren’t of any interest to News Corp and therefore were running no risks and sacrificing nothing. (Those of us who thought they remembered the Sun et al. laying into Clegg with ferocity when the LD poll ratings started rocketing in April last year must be getting confused – it’s probably all that leafletting in the hot sunshine that does it.)

    — Vince Cable (unlike, it would seem, every Labour politician who has had similar responsibility for the previous 13 years) tries to use his official powers to fight Murdoch’s influence and is dismissed for ‘blowing it’ when this becomes public, while Nick Clegg, because he does not publicly declare war on Murdoch, is assumed to be “too cowardly to communicate his concerns” (because obviously we’d know if he’d done so privately).

    It’s a good thing you’re not tribal, g, or we might never have had it explained to us so clearly.

  • Malcolm Todd , what Alec said.

    And on tribalism, it’s not tribal to criticise the liberal democrats, it’s tribal to defend a party, right or wrong. This site is tribal, I am not tribal.

  • g – your posts are so comedic that I wonder if you are a standup. Yesterday we had the spectacle of a former Labour Prime Minister complaining about NI’s treatment. What action did he take when he was PM, or for that matter, Chancellor? What use to man or beast is a politician if when they get into the real serious upper echelons of power, they just accept the status quo, even when that includes their own child’s medical conditions being hacked? Labour bent over backwards and frankly forwards for NI over very many years. Don’t even get me started on Blair. Unless you happen to be a constituent of Watson as a Labour supporter I can’t see what you have to crow about.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Jul '11 - 1:33pm

    @alec

    So much distress – justified, apparently, by the fact that Lib Dem supporters choose to talk about their own party’s long-standing critical approach to the Murdoch empire rather than announce proudly to the world everything that everyone else did.

    Specifically, you accuse me of “trying to belittle Bryant and Watson”. Gosh, what a terrible thing to do. I described them as Labour MPs with rock-solid seats and “low-flying” government careers; the point of this was that you and g were trying to make out that they were taking enormous risks by standing up to Murdoch, in implied contrast with Lib Dems – my comments were an entirely reasonable way of describing their situations and questioning just how much they were risking in comparison with the Lib Dems. At the point where you refer to this as “polemical abuse of Bryant and Watson” you pass on from mere tribalism to autoapoplectic self-caricature. Take a pill.

    g

    Nobody here suggests that it’s unreasonable or tribal to “criticise the Liberal Democrats” (though some people act as if it is – but I never have); what I was pointing out (and I’m sorry if I wasn’t literal enough to be understood) was that your characterisation of the relative contribution of the Liberal Democrats to all this was so distortedly partial that whether you are “tribal” or not becomes utterly irrelevant. Your desire to present every story, fact or development in the public sphere in the most hostile way possible to Liberal Democrats, regardless of any distortion required, makes your claimed objectivity* ridiculous.

    *That’s your implied claim, of course. I give not a stuff whether you’ve ever used the word “objective” about yourself.

  • Alistair, I’m not crowing, I’m criticising contributors on this site for misattributing credit to the Liberal Democrats when the bulk of it should belong to Bryant, Watson and The Guardian. It’s nothing more than shameless attempt to bask in reflected glory while pretending it’s actually illumination from your shining beacon of moral purity.

    Have you learned nothing in the last year or so? Expenses, tuition fees, benefit cuts… there’s a reason why your party has collapsed in Scotland and the polls run at 8% – it’s because you created an impression and made promises that made you look good but which were ultimately a facade hiding the same grubby politics and behaviour as everyone else.

  • Malcolm Todd, so am I ‘tribal’ or ‘partial’? I admit I’m the latter, but who, apart from the BBC, isn’t? But that’s not the same as ‘tribal’, which would be a description of a political position held in common by members of a particular group and in which they act as one.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Jul '11 - 2:00pm

    g

    Never said you were tribal. I said it’s a good thing you’re not, or we’d never have got such a clear (could have said ‘impartial’, but didn’t) description of the system. If you’re going to try to use literalism for humorous or argumentative effect, you’d better learn to understand irony more subtly.

    alec

    “Petard, own, hoist”? Lacking self-awareness, much?

    Both of you – try reading what I said, rather than attacking what you’d like me to have said for the convenience of your own argument.

    Have fun, guys.

  • Malcolm Todd, can I have my ball back please?

  • Alec, you use the word cahoots – not I. Cahoots suggests a degree of parity in partnership which I don’t subscribe to. I would rather like to suggest Blair was the junior partner in the nascent New Labour – NI relationship, travelling half way around the world as he did to gather some crumbs from under the dirty digger’s table.
    Nor did I say that Brown was a friend of NI, I merely remark how much of a wasted opportunity it is that he did nothing to curb media abuses when he held both of the country’s highest senior political offices, even when he had personal experience of their misdemeanors. Its a shame he almost never turns up to parliament to represent his constituents, if he did perhaps the press would get more regular opportunity to ask him why he did nothing on this issue.

  • Stop trying to wriggle out of it, Alistair. First there are reports of his having sought an inquiry in 2009. Then there’s you’re ridiculing his speech yesterday. HE WAS TALKING OF HIS UPSET AT HIS SON’S MEDICAL CONDITION BEING MADE INTO A CHEAP NEWS STORY!!!

    What’s there to ridicule about that?

    Its a shame he almost never turns up to parliament to represent his constituents, if he did perhaps the press would get more regular opportunity to ask him why he did nothing on this issue.

    He’s quite popular in his constituency, and the press are quite able to seek his advice outside London.

    ~alec

  • I’ll just poitn out what a bunch of ‘tribalists’ you are.

    I have never, once, voted for Labour. The only party I have ever voted for is the Lib Dems. The truth of the matter is that it is <i? you who are the tribalists and are projecting.I can see the wood from the trees, but if I disagree with what is nothing more than a weak love-in I am somehow a tribalist.

    You’d be correct to say that I think that Clegg is an utter shambles with no backbone, but I’m still a liberal.

  • Alistair,
    Its a shame he almost never turns up to parliament to represent his constituents, if he did perhaps the press would get more regular opportunity to ask him why he did nothing on this issue.
    That’s a curious talking point to bring up from a purported Lib Dem as it’s a bit of a Libertarian/Right-wing blogging point. But as Alec said, his constituents aren’t complaining, and he works for them. Also, as I’m in his neck of the woods, I can assure you that he is hardly a recluse but makes a decent number of public appearances in which he engages with the public.

  • Chris Riley 14th Jul '11 - 9:09am

    This is all jolly entertaining, but back to the Lib Dems.

    As Nick has just conceded, Murdoch never really tried to influence the party because the party wasn’t of much interest. Some MPs – Simon Hughes – did raise multiple warnings, and deserve credit. But it was Bryant and Watson who did all the heavy lifting, and, try as I might, I cannot find a single positive reference to them on this site throughout nearly the whole period. But all the claim-staking here is pointless and counter-productive. If the Lib Dems try to take the credit here, the public will just laugh and it will just reinforce the general opinion of opportunist bullshit that the party seems to have tried really hard to enforce of late.

    The snidery directed at Brown is especially distasteful, but not only that, it looks a bit dim considering they’re about to publish the Civil Service advice showing he wanted to do all the things you said he ought to have done but was blocked.

    I think a period of Lib Dem honesty might now be quite useful – hands up who would have backed Brown against Murdoch in 2009? Hands up who thinks Lib Dem MPs would have voted for Brown, or against him? You’d have been as tribal against Brown as you are now, and tried to block it because it was Brown, and dressed up your opposition in libertarian rhetoric, and citing it as yet another piece of Labour authoritarianism. That’s how politics work

    However, that’s all gone. A lot of people made some serious mistakes, but the key thing here is to push forward with what has been achieved so far rather than point fingers. I can understand Brown’s frustration last night, but he jeopardised things last night, not least because too many Tories are entirely unable to accept he might have had a point.

    As the least tainted party, you can, and should, lead a genuinely cross-party consensus here, and I’m glad to see Nick doing that. Just stop pretending you did a great deal. As a party essentially flying under Murdoch’s radar much of the time, you could, and, with hindsight should, have done a great deal more than you did, but you didn’t.

  • Alec, when you get really really upset with someone, do you throw them a 40th birthday party and invite them over to a slumber party and drop in at their wedding? Synthetic outrage from a pathetic Brown as fake as the shock from Cameron.

  • Paul Kennedy 14th Jul '11 - 9:50pm

    For what it’s worth I thought Simon Hughes was brilliant on Newsnight last night in pointing out how long and doggedly we have been fighting this issue. But all the publicity goes to two Labour MPs who belatedly agreed with us.

  • “Oh, and then there’s the small matter of Vince Cable declaring war on Murdoch last year. Shame how that worked out.”

    Yes, it was a shame. If Lib Dem MPs had been truly serious about their opposition to Murdoch they would have resisted Cable’s humiliating demotion and replacement by Hunt and they would have left the coalition in protest at the way in which Cameron was implementing Murdoch’s monopolist agenda which included the emasculation of the BBC. But while all this went on there was silence from your party.

    It was Ed Miliband’s commons motion to oppose the BSkyB bid that forced Murdoch to abandon the bid. And when that historic motion was being debated the Liberal Democrat leader was nowhere in sight. He didn’t even make an appearance in the chamber. So much for his opposition to Murdoch! Cameron didn’t appear either, but he had other reasons. It was backbench Labour MPs who had the guts to take on the Murdoch mafia. Not the pusillanimous Lib Dems! It was Labour’s success! If it had been left to the Tory led coalition The News of the World would still be being published and the Competition Commission would never have got anywhere near the BSkyB Bid. Your claim that the Lib Dems resisted Murdoch over the years is laughable!

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