I’d be interested to know how much of a ‘splash’ GBs speech yesterday in the House of Commons during the debate on News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB made with the general public. My instinct is not a whole lot, as he is for better or worse yesterdays man, the voters kicked him out at the last election and despite his protestations (which I’ll come to) he was at the heart of government for 13 years so to rise and complain about Murdoch now looks one-sided at best.
His speech made most impact in the House and in the political media circles, inspiring the usual invective from Tory supporters and politicians but no shortage of groaning among Labour supporters keen to see our leader Ed Miliband dominate the airwaves with his success of the last week or believing that Brown should just disappear and not return until his toxicity with the public has been well and truly expunged.
Reading GB’s speech though, I can’t help but feel that many people are almost wilfully missing the point.
Yes, it was biased and partisan where the House was (pretending* to be) ‘cross-party’ and united, aggressive where the House wanted to accentuate it’s dignity, and so on.
But is the biggest issue to rise from his speech really that he associated with tossers like Charlie Whelan and Damien McBride? Is it that he slagged off the Tories or that he didn’t give way as much as he should have? That Rebekah Brooks went to a slumber party at Chequers? Frankly given the quality of the questions he was asked I’m not surprised he didn’t give way much. Only one question from the Tories related to anything remotely relevant to the debate.
Inviting Rebakah Brooks to Chequers for a slumber party is hardly evidence that the policies of Brown’s government, which many agreed mere days ago was different to Blair’s after Blair’s own ‘ten plus three’ comments, were geared towards appeasing News International. If there were so many of these policies, we’d be reading lists of them in the press today.
There is no doubt that of course GB wanted to appease the press whenever possible. Whatever Brown’s faults, he’s not an idiot and didn’t want to isolate the media (though of course he managed it anyway).
But if the Tories want to really dismantle the substance of Brown’s speech, instead of just fling mud, they should answer the accusations Brown threw in their direction regarding the merging of their policies with that of News International.
The accusation that Brown was at the heart of government for 13 years so he now cannot talk about the power of media is a bizarre one. Whatever his past faults, it doesn’t alter whether the substance of his speech was right or wrong. Also it was Blair’s government, not Brown’s from 1997-2007. Finally sometimes in politics you have to wait until the right moment to do something. Of course Labour were nervous, as Mandelson recently admitted (his word is ‘fear’) of incurring the wrath of the press after seeing first hand what happened to Kinnock in the 1980s and 1990s, but as Blair judged, they had bigger things to be getting on with without incurring the wrath of the media on such an issue.
That’s not a pretty assessment of how politics works but sadly I think it is often a true one. Sometimes, whatever your beliefs, you have to wait until the moment is right to effect the change you’ve long sought to see.
This may be right, it may be wrong (hindsight is a lovely thing), but it’s hardly as simple as saying ‘You were there, you should have done something then’ – there are lots of reasons why they didn’t, felt they couldn’t or felt they shouldn’t. Regarding Brown, he always focussed far more on the Daily Mail than The Sun anyway, so I’m surprised people haven’t brought up Dacre and the Mail and Brown’s policies on cannabis and so-called Super Casinos (the difference here is that the policies are not related to the regulation or ownership of the media).
If you read Brown’s speech he clearly refers to his time as Prime Minister, not the 10 years preceding that. So let’s deal with the substance of those three years.
He refers to various policy decisions that came up in this time where he believes they did not kowtow to News International.
Firstly, on the attempted purchase of a significant share in ITV, the government referred it to the Competition Commission and it forced the abandonment of the purchase attempt. I don’t see how the Tories can really argue this point, and given the stories that have come out recently about the revenge mentality of News International for anyone who goes against them (Outing Chris Bryant soon after he questioned Brooks at a Select Committee) I don’t think it’s a leap in the dark to think perhaps they weren’t happy with Labour under GB for this.
Secondly, he discusses the Ofcom investigation that ended with BSkyB having to sell its sporting services cheaper to encourage competition. The government supported Ofcom. Again, I don’t think the Tories can argue against this point.
He then refers to the famous anti-BBC speech from James Murdoch, who railed against the BBC and insisted that profit and money were the only safeguards for press freedom, or something along those lines. I don’t think Brown is on his own in his interpretation of that speech and it was referred to constantly as a signal of intent by News International at the time. I recall Andy Burnham and Ben Bradshaw as Culture Sec in this era (if I’ve got my years and eras right!) commenting on these issues.
While many commentators have criticised Brown for complaining (or mentioning) that The Sun depicted him as Dr. Evil, they have all ignored the comment he made immediately before that, where he referred to the Sun printing the headline ‘Brown killed my son’. Perhaps because that one is harder to defend as an example of how the tabloids cover news in an aggressive and sometimes jocular manner.
Brown gave a precise list of issues under his time as Prime Minister that he believed conflicted with the desires of News International and where subsequently the Tories matched their policies with that of News International:
On the future of the licence fee, on BBC online, on the right of the public to see free of charge the maximum possible number of national sporting events, on the future of the BBC’s commercial arm, and on the integrity of Ofcom.
Again, if the Tories really want to take apart Brown’s speech, they can start by proving this section wrong. For starters, on Ofcom Cameron made a statement in opposition that Ofcom ‘as we knew it’ would change dramatically, while Jeremy Hunt, then Shadow Culture Sec, was considering whether to ‘tear up’ the BBC Charter. This article on the BBC (obviously biased then) outlines the accusations that dogged the Tories in 2010.
The sketch today by Simon Carr in the Independent outlines the typical attitude to Brown’ speech, claiming he essentially says he spent ’13 years in government fighting for the public interest against News International’. In fact Brown says no such thing nor does he imply it. He refers explicitly only to his time as Prime Minister. By all means let’s have an appraisal of his speech, but let’s do it honestly.
Brown goes on to outline the timeline involved in his decision to have a judge-led inquiry into the press hacking allegations.
In February 2010, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee reported that the number of victims was more than the handful that had been claimed. It said it was inconceivable that no one else at News International other than those convicted was in the know. News International, it said, was guilty of “deliberate obfuscation”. But already, in August 2009, Assistant Commissioner Yates of Scotland Yard had taken only eight hours—less time, I may say, than he spent dining with the people he should have been investigating—to reject pre-emptively a further police inquiry. Even the proposal that an outside police force take over the Scotland Yard inquiry had been rejected.
Having seen the Select Committee report, I immediately asked the head of the civil service to agree that we set up a judicial inquiry. Far from the so-called cosy relationship alleged with News International, which would have meant doing nothing, my answer to what appeared to be News International’s abuse of press freedom was a full judge-led inquiry to meet growing public concern.
Therefore we are looking at a time period from February 2010 to May 2010, hence the advice from the civil service that he shouldn’t hold an inquiry. Now of course it was ultimately Brown’s decision whether to hold one or not but to suggest it’s as simple as that is a tad ridiculous.
Imagine it at the time, Labour trailing the Tories in the polls, Brown trailing Labour in the polls, three months before a general election, Brown orders an inquiry into an issue that just so happens to involve the head of communications in Tory HQ, Andy Coulson (and I don’t doubt for a second this is a large part of why Brown wanted to do it! We all know his motives are hardly pure), and on top of all this, he would be announcing it against the advice of the civil service.
The fact is Brown had little political power by that time. It would have killed him off completely. It’s his own fault he had so little power by this point, but the fact is he was in no position to overturn the advice given to him and announce an inquiry.
By giving him advice not to hold the inquiry the civil service essentially blocked it by making the politics of it impossible. Tom Harris, hardly Brown’s biggest supporter, also holds this view. The Tory question to Cameron yesterday asking how much preparation work Cameron received on the issue of an inquiry, essentially implying Brown is a liar for saying he wanted an inquiry, is nonsensical.
It would make no sense to do prep work on an inquiry before you had the advice of the civil service. Once the civil service advise it would be acceptable, then you go ahead and prepare for the inquiry.
I also find it astonishing to see Brown criticised in the Daily Mail for reading out confidential advice from the civil service using parliamentary privilege, when the same privilege was used simply to out Ryan Giggs as the footballer behind the recent super injunction. I think perhaps Brown’s case merits the use of privilege slightly more given the substance of the issue, but I don’t remember seeing any mock-outrage for the abuse of the Commons in the Mail then (though I’m happy to be proved wrong on that one).
Later in the speech Brown calls for a proper investigation into the ‘undue concentration of ownership in the media as a whole’, something Anthony Painter has been calling for for a while now and it is somewhere that arguably would provide more fertile ground for Ed Miliband to plough than banging on about Andy Coulson over and over again (that issue will resolve itself one way or another without Ed going on about it).
I’m not saying Brown is a saint who heroically fought against evil for his entire time either in government or as Prime Minister. Nor am I defending his stupidity, hypocrisy and immorality in hiring goons like Whelan and McBride to smear opponents on his behalf while he ignored all the warnings. But I am suggesting that the core of his speech yesterday was a good one, that his call for an investigation into the concentration of media ownership is apt and that his accusations about Tory policy towards News International are worth investigation.
It’s tragic that Brown is such a divisive figure that people refuse to see this, but it’s ultimately an image of his own making.
If I had to choose between a slumber party at Chequers for Rebekah Brooks and Elisabeth Murdoch or BSkyB owning part of ITV and an emasculated BBC I know which I’d choose. If the Tories think they can point to specific policies of Brown’s during his time as Prime Minister that were explicitly designed to curry favour with News International or that were blatantly in their interest then by all means point them out.
You’d like to think it would prove more effective than flinging mud and calling him names, but the sad fact is it probably wouldn’t.
* The reason I say the House was pretending to have a cross-party unity is that frankly it was in no ones interest to rake too wildly over the coals of the past as everyone has supped from the same cup. Ed Miliband’s suggestion that details of meetings be released going back to the last General Election were a bit of a pathetic attempt to embarrass the government when the mood was to accept everyone had erred in the past and we should look forward. Another Tory suggested if we were going to do that we should go back to the previous government as well. All pointless and Cameron is right to resist such puerile suggestions.