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April 30, 2012

Reality Check on Leveson, Murdoch and Hunt

Posted on the 21st Century PR Issues blog on April 26th by Paul Seaman

Hating the Murdochs is a sport in some quarters. It is almost all the old British left has left. Socialism is not doing well, but loathing Thatcher and her biggest media supporters still resonates. In the case of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, we have what looks like the perfect mirror-image foolishness from the right-wing of politics.

As long as the Murdochs have a certain sort of enemy, bright young things of the right are tempted to pile in blindly on their side. That’s fair enough for almost everyone except people in government, whose job – boringly – is to be scrupulous. They are, in the buzzword of the week, quasi-judicial. They need the unfashionable qualities of the bureaucrat: they write, and need to live by, the rule book. So the Hunt issue seems to be an example of a quite modern problem.

Let’s suppose that it turns out that Jeremy Hunt’s office were too closely allied with, and chatty with, the Murdochs. It would be a perfect case of a striking new failure of modern politicians, obvious under Blair’s sofa-government and hardly less so under Cameron. They don’t “get” government; they prefer Special Advisers to Whitehall; they prefer hands-on decision-making to the institutional democratic process.

One suspects that the Leveson inquiry will say little that is new about the ethics of the media and its relations with power. The good judge will probably propose some reforms. We may have a media whose corporations are more disciplined even as the blogosphere becomes more unruly. But we don’t need Leveson to tell us that politicians and police need to become more serious about their own dignity and role in life. It is, or should be, as plain as day that they need to be more grey and more accountable to democratic institutions and processes.

For anybody who wants to read more, here’s my review of the core PR issues:

So, we’re all agreed that bribing the police and hacking the phones of celebs, dead soldiers and murdered schoolgirls is immoral, and some of those seem to have been the unique preserve of the Murdoch empire. (We’ll see.) We can probably agree that if the Murdoch empire obstructed police in their enquiries, that may turn out to be the longest, deepest issue of all. But there is no consensus on what we should learn from this sorry saga. In fact, I fear the wrong lessons are being drawn.

The most potent myth of all is that by hounding and denouncing Rupert Murdoch we are somehow helping clean up British politics, its police and its journalism. I’m predisposed to say that instead of doing any such thing we are in danger of indulging in humbug. We risk laying ourselves open to swallowing a load of dodgy claims from Murdoch’s rivals and from politicians seeking the moral high-ground.

We live in age of digital fragmentation when the media is global in reach, not just local. There are myriad opinion-forming sources today. The world’s media is just a click or two away from anybody with online access. We live in an era in which media barons have less power than they’ve ever had.

One cannot compare the power that Lord Northcliffe (a former owner of The Times) had over British public opinion in the early 20th century with that held by Rupert Murdoch in the early 21st century. For example, Winston Churchill criticised Northcliffe’s role in the First World War, saying he: “wielded power without official responsibility, enjoyed secret knowledge without the general view, and disturbed the fortunes of national leaders without being willing to bear their burdens.”

Certainly, in Northcliffe’s day – the high tide of print media – his influence was not challenged by competitors such as multiple radio and TV channels, and the near infinite content of the internet. Though, of course, Northcliffe did have competitors in the print realm, such as the press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who became Britain’s Minister of Information in 1918.

So, once upon a time there was perhaps truth in the notion that media barons of the likes of Randolph Hearst (Citizen Kane) and Lord Northcliffe were overly-influential. But one can hardly claim credibly that such a state of affairs applies today.

The idea that Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers were responsible for Margaret Thatcher’s victories and for Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party’s humiliation in the 1980s beggars belief. It is also hard to believe that Murdoch was responsible for Tony Blair’s victories or for Gordon Brown’s defeat.

The evidence suggests that Murdoch’s newspapers swung this and that way with the tide, pulled not by the moon but by the bright glow of the side most likely to win. For sure, there was no Murdoch-led swing to Cameron at the 2010 General Election so much as crumbling support for Gordon Brown’s New Labour. This allowed an almost-electorally-stagnant Tory party to form a coalition government with the Lib Dems, whose seats in parliament declined despite gaining positive media endorsement from virtually every publishing house in the UK.

The question then is why did Britain’s political elite, not to mention its police, get so entangled with Murdoch’s empire and so desperate to court its favours? I see two main reasons:

1. For the political elite Murdoch’s camp was the only major media house not permanently tied to any particularly party of the so-called left and right divide. In contrast, the likes of The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and even the BBC, were much more fixed in their ideological and political outlook and loyalties.

2. Britain’s Establishment, including the elite in politics and the police, genuinely over-estimated Murdoch’s and the media’s influence. They lived in fear of it. In response, they sought to mingle with it, schmooze it, neutralize it, and to co-opt it and thereby gain access to its popular appeal. Collectively the Establishment displayed a lack of nerve, not to mention a lack of nous about the relationship between public opinion and the media (we can put some of the blame on poor PR advice from PR pros).

This is not to say that the media is without influence or unimportant. It is to say that politicians and the police have exaggerated the media’s powers and underestimated their own. If the public has not become subservient to sections of the media, some of the elite certainly have.

The elite delusion that garnering headlines is a short-cut to winning popularity with the public provides the only logical explanation as to why David Cameron took the known risk of hiring Andy Coulson as his media guru. In my view, Cameron’s number-one concern was containing and managing the media, in particular Murdoch’s media. It is an approach to engaging the public that unravels again and again

Unfortunately, the current crisis has not seen politicians regain their sense of self-worth. Neither has it taught the police to hold their nerve in the face of a media onslaught.

The political class now seems set on intruding into the media’s realm. The House of Commons Select Committee has totally over-reacted. It has, as my friend Richard D North points out here, gone way beyond its remit. It has in the process brought down elite police officers of the class of Yates and Stephenson without good cause. It is in danger of victimising the entire Murdoch empire in a vain attempt to court popularity with Murdoch’s formidable rivals in the media world, not to mention the Twitterati.

So what lessons do I think we learn from this hacking scandal? What PR advice do I have to offer to (a) Murdoch (b) MPs and (c) the police? Well here goes:

What we should learn?

First, media competition is alive and well, if not always well behaved. The crimes at the News of The World were exposed by its rivals. The upshot was that rather than revealing how powerful Rupert Murdoch is, it revealed how fragile his influence was.

However, the elite are now in danger of exchanging their faith in Murdoch’s illusory grip on public opinion with a misplaced faith in the liberal media’s and the Twitterati’s grip. In other words, politicians and police are now seemingly bent on trying to please yet another set of media influencers led by The Guardian.

In today’s increasingly disterintermediated world institutions can communicate directly with the public. As for the established media, firms and institutions of all sorts would do well to keep their media relations much less intimate and much more formal. The truth is that the media gets close to its marks in order to rip them apart whenever it desires. That’s a lesson that we need to take to heart.

What should Murdoch do?

He should do what he’s doing: grovel. He must be open and honest and clean up his house and rid himself of the rottenness, but also the poor governance, in his empire. (See the difficulties facing FIFA.) That is going to hurt. It might even bring down his own son. It is most likely going to send some of his employees to prison. But if he gets it right, News International could restore its reputation and perhaps make it more robust than ever.

What should politicians do?

Politicians should also own up to the truth. They share much of the guilt with News International. From Prime Minister David Cameron downwards, the relationship between politicians and the media – that’s with the entire media – has been grubby. They should apologise for that. They should seek forgiveness. At the same time they must set out in a new direction based on a new strategy that they communicate clearly.

To begin with they should stop the witch hunt against Rupert Murdoch, which is a trap that merely favours one set of media players at the expense of another. Instead, they need to get a sense of perspective over this whole messy affair. They must demonstrate their independence from the media by setting their own agenda. Disintermediated communication is what they need. Back to the soapbox, lads. That’s an approach which is far more likely to demonstrate integrity and to win the public’s respect than any amount of media schmoozing could ever achieve.

What should the police do?

First, they should reject the notion (put about by critics and even some friends) about how it is working class coppers who cannot fathom the complexities and subtler roles of today’s world. Let’s not forget that it was Oxbridge and classy coppers such as Sir Ian Blair (see here), Sir Paul Stephenson, John Yates and Brian Paddick who all messed up their affairs most embarrassingly precisely because they became obsessed with becoming part of the new political and media Establishment in order to manage public perception.

In contrast, I advise: the police should recognise that the media are animals; newsrooms are sausage factories; and that nevertheless, sometimes, they have their uses. But coppers have to accept that theirs is an unpopular role and that poor public perception comes with their beat. Just like judges, they need to keep their distance if they are to maintain their integrity in the face of the public. Sorry to say, but coppers just have to come to terms with the fact that theirs is a lonely role. They cannot expect much thanks from anyone, least of all politicians, for doing a great job.

In short, coppers should become more obsessed with being professional and much less concerned with being popular, which is an obsession that paradoxically has done more harm than good to their image.

It was the likes of the Labour politician Keith Vaz who hounded Yates and Stephenson so much that they felt obliged to resign. That had all the hallmarks of a hunt for scapegoats. Both coppers had distinguished records. They were “guilty” of little more than poor judgement and poor PR instincts. They forged some embarrassing personal links and made the odd omission etc.. A slap on the wrist at some point in the future might have been much more in the public interest than chopping off their heads. I believe that Stephenson and Yates should have resisted the pressure to resign. That leads me to my major observations on the whole affair.

The Big Picture

The time has come for institutions of all sorts to hold their nerve in the face of Grub Street’s rants and raving. Society does not require more controls over the media. Rather the elite requires more self-control and stronger nerves.

It is time for PRs to recommend forging a new relationship between their clients, the media and the public. It is time that PRs helped leaders lead. It is time to take back control of the reputations of public institutions from the media.

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