Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Where Labour needs to take the News of the World story next

Tom Watson is personally playing a blinder at the moment. And Ed Miliband has, by most accounts, had a good week. But there still seems to be a lack of real strategic intent from Labour in handling the News of the World story. We have a few historical mea culpas that we should probably get out of the way now for once and for all.

But I'm surprised that Labour isn't making more of Cameron's overt complicity in creating the bizarre situation this week in which Parliament is formally unable to end Murdoch's bid to take control of BSkyB.

His pre-election broadside on OfCOM was the clearest example of a proposed regulatory change serving the interests of one powerful player - in this case, News Corporation.

It all fits in with a wider pattern. The very processes that can make media regulation work have been subtly undermined - with both Parliament and the commentariat succumbing to Murdoch's lobbying power - over decades.

The Guardian deserves plenty of praise for it's work recently, but over the years, I found their former Media correspondent Emily Bell to be one of the worst offenders in this regard. Over the years, many editors took the odd decision of taking Murdoch apologists such as David Elstein on as neutral industry commentators on media issues.

Isn't it odd? The Guardian's Steve Hewlett was on the radio yesterday joining a quiet chorus of handwringing going on about how Jeremy Hunt was going to have to try and derail the due process that should - by rights - allow News Corporation to have their way on this issue.

Update: 14:30pm, 13/7/11: BSkyB bid withdrawn

In asking 'Who is more powerful - Murdoch or Parliament', Robert Peston echoes this himself here:
"My impression is that Mr Murdoch is outraged by the impression created by Parliament's behaviour that he and his company are guilty before formal investigations have run their course.

In fact I would not be at all surprised if he were to cite the actions of MPs in voting for him to end the bid as evidence for him of the impossibility that he will get a fair hearing in the judicial and quasi judicial reviews of what the News of the World and other parts of his British operations may or may not have done."
But this is the problem. Over decades, Murdoch's various lobbying arms have cornered the British state into applying rules, creating decision-making processes and appointing regulators that are congenial to their corporate interests.

The process by which the BSkyB decision was going to be made was cooked up in connivance with News Corporation. It's not a respectable one and it should be ignored (and Vince Cable should be reinstated while we're at it).

The Wikipedia account of the 1990 Broadcasting Act is as good a place as any to start. Over the years that follows, we've seen broadcasting (both here and at EU level) being nudged into the territory of what are essentially telecom regulators with only the BBC being subject to any effective form of accountability.

And now we act like we're surprised by the pickle that Parliament finds itself in.

The 1990 act and subsequent strategic decisions on media regulation all need revisiting. Even senior Tories at the time knew what the eventual outcome was going to be and were dismayed. Neil Kinnock would have done it as a matter of priority, and the abandonment of this focus was one of the game-changers that created New Labour. Continuity Labour needs to pick up the ball that was dropped in the early 1990s now and press for wholesale reform of media ownership rules.

After all, it would be good to be well-placed to make the right response when (if!) Tom Bower publishes his biography of Richard Desmond, won't it?

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