In (partial) defence of Labour’s so-called ‘Lay Off Murdoch’ instruction to party’s MPs

‘Lay off Murdoch’ — that was the ever-so-quotable paraphrase that the New Statesman used to accompany this article by Dan Hodges, revealing how the Labour Party press team had issued a circular ‘to all shadow cabinet teams warns Labour spokespeople to avoid linking hacking with the BSkyB bid, to accept ministerial assurances that meetings with Rupert Murdoch are not influencing that process, and to ensure that complaints about tapping are made in a personal, not shadow ministerial, capacity.’

In reality, Labour’s communications chief Tom Baldwin — yes, himself a former Murdoch employee — did not use the phrase, ‘Lay off Murdoch’. But, then, Jim Callaghan didn’t utter the line ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ either, so all’s fair in love-and-phwoar journalism, I guess.

However, I think it is worth reproducing in full what the memo did say:

From: xxxx | Sent: 27 January 2011 To: xxxx
Subject: Important: Phone hacking

Dear all,

Tom Baldwin has requested that any front bench spokespeople use the following line when questioned on phone hacking.

BSkyB bid and phone tapping
These issues should not be linked. One is a competition issue, the other an allegation of criminal activity.

On BSkyB, we have been consistent in calling for fair play. We believe ministers should conduct themselves properly in what is a quasi-judicial process. We said Vince Cable showed he was incapable of behaving fairly towards News Corp. We have since raised questions about whether Jeremy Hunt can be fully impartial given his record of past statements. We do believe the bid should be referred to the Competition Commission and think Hunt should get on with it. Downing Street says that Cameron’s dinners with Murdoch will not affect Hunt’s judgement. We have to take them at their word.

On phone hacking, we believe the police should thoroughly investigate all allegations. But this is not just an issue about News International. Almost every media organisation in the country may end up becoming embroiled in these allegations. This goes to the root of a wider problem in public life. MPs are taking a hard look at themselves in the mirror over expenses. It is time the media did so too over the way it conducts itself.

Frontbench spokespeople who want to talk about their personal experiences of being tapped should make it clear they are doing just that – speaking from personal experience.

We must guard against anything which appears to be attacking a particular newspaper group out of spite.



Labour Party Press Office

One line stands out which partially justifies the ‘Lay off Murdoch’ interpretation, and that’s the surprisingly indulgent assumption of innocence that the close-knit connectedness of the upper Tory echelons and News International executives ‘will not affect Hunt’s judgement’. ‘We have to take them at their word,’ says Mr Baldwin, which sounds like the summing-up of a 1950s judge rather than the hard-nosed spin-adviser to HM’s Official Opposition.

One other line is absent from the memo: any suggestion that the ‘fit and proper person’ test should be invoked when determining whether News International should be permitted to takeover BSkyB. Given how assiduous was Tom Baldwin in pursuing Lord Ashcroft, including allegedly hacking the Tory peer’s bank account, this is a surprising lacuna.

However, for the rest of the memo it seems to me like fair comment. Indeed, I’d go further. The memo places the issues surrounding the hacking scandal in their proper context. There is a real danger that the focus on News International (and its senior executives Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton) is distracting from the wider issues this episode poses for journalism, the police and politics.

Just as News International’s claim that the hacking was the sole responsibility of a couple of rogue reporters has proved to be risible, so is the idea that the practices exposed in the past week are restricted only to the Murdoch empire.

The Spectator published a telling graph a couple of days highlighting which newspaper groups had been implicated by the Information Commissioner most often in paying for private information. News International came third, with the Mirror Group and Associated Press, publishers of the Mail stable, leading the way. The extent of their coverage of the hacking scandal was a mirror image of their complicity.

I’ll shed no tears for the loss of the News of the World. But what would be a tragedy is if News International’s sacrifice of its biggest-selling newspaper allows other publishing groups to brush off the serious accusations levelled also against them. Our politicians, regardless of party, should ensure all media organisations and journalists are held to account without fear or favour, and face equal treatment in front of the law. Anything that smacks of spite will be sure to backfire.

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  • actually it was clegg who let coulson be appointed despite being warned by ashdown over his behaviour….. just saying labour came out pretty well from this

  • Daniel Henry 11th Jul '11 - 1:06am

    Are you sure?
    The Guardian story disagrees with you. Their “senior Whitehall contacts” claim that Nick did everything within his power to dissuade Cameron from hiring Coulson but with it being a personal post for the PM rather than a government post he had to accept Cameron’s final decision.

  • Yeah, in agreement with Daniel (and, more importantly, the facts).

    Not sure quite how the responsibility for appointing Coulson could have even theoretically fallen on Clegg. What a thoroughly bewildering thing to say…

  • Agree with Daniel and Ian. It looks like Nick Clegg did all he could to prevent Coulson’s appointment. He couldn’t make it a coalition deal-breaker. After all, what would he have said to the press? “The talks have broken down but I can’t tell you why”?

    If Clegg did indeed raise the issue directly with Cameron, that contradicts Cameron’s consistent assertion – including at Friday’s press conference – that nobody had raised it with him. This raises further questions about Cameron’s judgement.

  • As Clegg made the resignation of the then current PM a condition of any coalition agreement, then making Coulson’s resignation a similar condition was surely not beyond him. Maybe he chose not to because his objections were purely self/party interests, and not because of any concerns over probity.

  • But if Cameron refused to back down, what would Clegg have told the press? If he said that Coulson was the issue – but, for legal reasons, not being able to say exactly why – he would have looked ridiculous.

  • i think if he can influence policy he could easily have dissuaded him over his press officer, especially as in private at least it was clear the man was toxic

  • @Simon G

    Do you really believe that Cameron would relinquish the chance to become PM for Coulson? No matter how naive some may think the LibDem negotiating team were, no one could believe that even they would think that .
    The only reason Clegg didn’t push for Coulson’s removal was because he feared it may sour relations between him and Cameron. And at that early stage of the love-in, Clegg was focused on the burgeoning relationship he and Cameron were developing.

  • If Clegg had attempted to force the issue then Cameron (or one of his underlings) would have gone running to the press to tell them that Clegg was making a fuss about who the PM’s spokesperson should be. Don’t forget the full details couldn’t have been revealed at the time because of the impending court case. Therefore, Clegg would have been portrayed as making a fuss over a relatively trivial matter.

  • So rather than do the right thing, Clegg was more worried about press reaction.

  • Daniel Henry 11th Jul '11 - 7:45pm

    Do people understand that Coulson’s post wasn’t a government one, it was a personal one to the PM. It wasn’t Clegg’s business to decide who Cameron’s adviser should be.

    He have his opinion, expressed his concerns but it was ultimately Cameron’s choice. Are people really suggesting that Clegg should have made Cameron’s choice of staff a deal-breaking issue?

  • He could have just said “lay off the NI titles or they will go after me”

    I watched nearly all of Crimewatch this evening and was disappointed to not see a single glimpse of the famous outlaw they call the Aussie Dirty Digger.

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