It’s The Sun wot swung it…or was it?

By DAVID WOODING

MYTHS and conspiracy theories galore have been peddled at the Leveson inquiry about the power broking that goes on between newspaper owners and political leaders.

But today I find myself agreeing with Alastair Campbell. Labour’s former spin doctor told the hearing there was no “express deal” between Labour’s Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch in the run-up to the 1997 election.

He goes even further and downplays the “perceived power” of newspapers to influence elections.

“I just don’t buy it,” he said. “The Sun backed us because we knew we were going to win. We didn’t win because The Sun backed us.”

There are two things that trouble me, however, about his insistence that Labour didn’t care whether or not he won the support of  Britain’s top-selling newspaper.

Image

First of all, why was the party leadership  so incensed when The Sun ended 13 years of support?

And secondly,  I wonder if he could explain the slightly different view voiced in a private discussion I had with a senior figure close to Mr Blair just before polling closed on May 1, 1997.

I am not going to reveal my source, but I was summoned to a hotel room in Sedgefield and told in gushing terms how The Sun helped to clinch the landslide victory.

The Labour source said:  “The Press has made a huge difference in this campaign.

“If we’d had The Sun going on at us hell-for-leather on Europe, it could have been a different story.”

I used his words to create a story under the headline “It was The Sun wot swung it” which was publshed next day. (See reproduction of the story below)

My own view has always been that politicians talk to journalists to spread their message, promote themselves,  and smear the opposition – sometimes those within their own party.

We in turn stay close to them because it’s our job to get stories.

Funny how one party cries foul when the other is getting all the attention and then says it is perfectly above board when it’s their turn to get a good Press.

Give us credit for your successes if you want to – or claim it was all your own work.

But you can’t have it both ways.

Image

The article from The Sun, May 2, 1997:

It’s The Sun wot swung it

By DAVID WOODING

JUBILANT Tony Blair praised The Sun last night for helping to clinch his stunning General Election victory.

The new PM admittedBritain’s favourite newspaper played a big part in swinging millions of voters behind New Labour.

He told party bigwigs our support was vital in spreading the message that the party was fit to govern.

A source close to Mr Blair said: “The Press has made a huge difference in this campaign.

“If we’d had The Sun going at us hell-for-leather onEurope, it could have been a different story.”

It is the SECOND time in five years that a political leader has said “Thanks my Sun” for helping him to electoral triumph. After John Major clinched victory from Labour at the 1992 poll, Tories admitted: “It’s The Sun what won it.”

Mr Blair was swift to give credit to our role in his win when he looked back over his 34-day election trail.

He believes the size of his majority was down to the success of his carefully-run campaign – and getting the message across.

But he was also thankful for a series of own-goals from the Tories, whose election strategy he branded “a shambles.”

A senior source in the Labour leadership camp said: “We did an awful lot right and they didn’t score many points on the key issues.

“One of their big mistakes was thinking a long campaign would suit them. In fact, it was great for us. We are used to it. We ran an extremely successful campaign. Our message was loud and clear. We were all singing from the same hymn sheet.

“But if there is one person responsible for the result, it is Tony.

“He was fantastic and this will give him added strength when he moves into No 10 as Prime Minister.”

For the first time, officials admitted Mr Blair was hit by the jitters as John Major tried to make him crack.

Slick

Tories even put an undercover “gaffe watch” unit on the Labour leader and deputy John Prescott for three weeks. But they called off the spy team when they failed to find a single chink in Labour’s slick campaign strategy.

A source added: “Tony would be the first to admit he was very tense at the start of the campaign.

“Although he knew much time and effort would be spent trying to discredit him, I don’t think it dawned on him until it started.

“There was a certain amount of tension. The last weeks have meant a huge change in his family’s lives.

“He grew in confidence and stature as time went on, and by the final week he was really motoring. It has been superb to watch him go.”

Mr Blair admitted last night he feels SORRY for John Major. A source said: “He has some sympathy, but thinks Mr Major never faced up to the difficulties in the Tory Party.”

Kelvin MacKenzie on Press standards

By DAVID WOODING

KELVIN MacKenzie isn’t one to pull his punches – and was his usual knockabout self when he spoke to the Leveson inquiry on Press standards today.

Love him or loathe him, the former Sun editor knows how to get his point across in concise and often colourful language.

Mr MacKenzie revealed how:

  – HE only checked the source of one story when he was editor of The Sun and it ended up costing him £1 million in libel damages.

– A MOLE hunt launched after a major defence exclusive was chaired by the MI6 colonel  who leaked the story.

– GORDON Brown threatened to “destroy” Rupert Murdoch in a 20-minute phone tirade hours after one of his paper’s endorsed the Tories.

– DAVID Cameron hired ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson only as a gesture of political friendship to the newspaper tycoon.

Mr MacKenzie (pictured left) didn’t mince his words when asked for his assessment of what should be done to reform the British media.

“Nothing,” he declared bluntly.

He said the only new law needed is one to ban “under-talented” MPs from kissing the a**es of newspaper owners.

In a bravura performance, he gave both barrels to David Cameron and Education Secretary Michael Gove over their “gut-wrenching” crawling to Rupert Murdoch. He even tore into Lord Leveson himself.

Mr MacKenzie told how he had suggested Labour MPs should set their mobile phones ringing every time the PM stood up to talk in the Commons – in a jibe at his “potty” decision to hire ex-News of the World boss Andy Coulson as an aide.

Mr MacKenzie gazed around the room and asked: “Where is our great Prime Minister who ordered this ludicrous inquiry?

“After all, the only reason we are all here is due to one man’s action; Cameron’s obsessive a**e-kissing over the years of Rupert Murdoch. Tony Blair was pretty good, as was Brown. But Cameron was the Daddy.

“Such was his obsession with what newspapers said about him – and Rupert had three market leaders – that as party leader he issued all his senior colleagues, especially Michael Gove, with knee pads in order to protect their blue trousers when they genuflected in front of the Special Sun.

Gut-wrenching

“Cameron wanted Rupert onside as he believed, quite wrongly in my view, that The Sun’s endorsement would help him to victory. “When the paper did come out for Cameron the Sun’s sale fell by 40,000 copies that day.

“There was never a party, a breakfast, a lunch, a cuppa or a drink that Cameron and Co would not turn up to in force if The Great Man or his handmaiden Rebekah Brooks was there. There was always a queue to kiss their rings. It was gut-wrenching.”

He added: “Cameron had clearly gone quite potty. And the final proof that he was certifiable was his hiring of my friend Andy Coulson.

“I remember telling anybody who would listen that if I were Brown, every time Cameron stood up in the Commons he should arrange for mobile phones to ring on his side of the House.

“It would have killed Cameron. Nobody took me seriously. And then the phone hacking scandal erupted. Not a scandal of Rupert’s making but the order went out from Cameron: stop the a**e kissing and start the a**e kicking.”

Turning to “this bloody inquiry” chaired by Lord Leveson (pictured right), he continued: “God help me that free speech comes down to the thought process of a judge who couldn’t win when prosecuting counsel against Ken Dodd for tax evasion and more recently robbing the Christmas Island veterans of a substantial pay-off for being told simply to turn away from nuclear test blasts in the Fifties. It’s that bad.

“I have been forced by what sounds like the threat of a jail term to give a witness statement to this inquiry.

“The questions not only made me laugh through their ignorance but also that a subject as serious as free speech should be dealt with in this manner.

“Question seven basically wanted to know if an editor knew the sources of many of the stories. To be frank, I didn’t bother during my 13 years with one important exception. With this particular story I got in the news editor, the legal director, the two reporters covering it and the source himself on a Friday afternoon.

“We spent two hours going through the story and I decided that it was true and we should publish it on Monday. It caused a worldwide sensation. And four months later The Sun was forced to pay out a record £1 million libel damages to Elton John for wholly untrue rent boy allegations. So much for checking a story, I never did it again. Basically my view was that if it sounded right it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in.

“How will this inquiry change that? Question six also deals with sources and I disclosed another story that happened during my 13 years as editor of The Sun. That morning we had led on a Ministry of Defence story revealing some kind of secret we felt our readers should know.

“The reporter concerned came in and said there was problem. No 10 had gone nuts and an official inquiry was starting into who had leaked the story with a colonel from MI6 being drafted in to head it. The reporter told me the MoD were determined to get to the bottom of it but it was not all bad news. Why was that I asked.

“Because the colonel heading the inquiry was the bloke who gave us the story in the first place. How will this inquiry change that? Yes there was criminal cancer at the News of The World. Yes, there were editorial and management errors as the extent of the cancer began to be revealed. But why do we need an inquiry of this kind?

Roared

“There are plenty of laws to cover what went on. After all, 16 people have already been arrested and my bet is that the number may well go to 30 once police officers are rounded up. Almost certainly they will face conspiracy laws, corruption laws, false accounting laws. There are plenty of laws that may have been broken. Lord Leveson knows them all by heart.

“Supposing these arrests didn’t come from the newspaper business. Supposing they were baggage handlers at Heathrow nicking from luggage, or staff at Primark carrying out a VAT swindle, or more likely, a bunch or lawyers involved in a mortgage fraud. Would such an inquiry have ever been set up? Of course not.”

Mr MacKenzie said Mr Coulson’s appointment at Number 10 was down to the PM’s personal lack of judgment.

“I don’t blame Andy for taking the job,” he said. “I do blame Cameron for offering it.

“It was clearly a gesture of political friendship aimed over Andy’s head to Rupert Murdoch. If it wasn’t that then Cameron is a bloody idiot. A couple of phone calls from Central Office people would have told him that there was a bad smell hanging around the News of the World.

“Rupert told me an incredible story. He was in his New York office on the day that The Sun decided to endorse Cameron for the next election. That day was important to Brown as his speech to the party faithful at the Labour party conference would have been heavily reported in the papers.

“Of course the endorsement blew Brown’s speech off the front page. That night a furious Brown called Murdoch and in Rupert’s words: ‘Roared at me for 20 minutes’.

“At the end Brown said: ‘You are trying to destroy me and my party. I will destroy you and your company.’ That endorsement on that day was a terrible error.

“I can’t believe it was Rupert’s idea. Strangely, he is quite a cautious man. Whoever made that decision should hang their head in shame. I point the finger at a management mixture of Rebekah and James Murdoch.

“The point of my anecdotes is to show that this inquiry should decide there is nothing wrong with the Press, that we should enshrine free speech in Cameron’s planned Bill of Rights and accept the scandal was simply a moment in time when low-grade criminality took over a newspaper.

“If anything, the only recommendation that should be put forward by Leveson is one banning by law over- ambitious and under-talented politicians from giving house room to proprietors who are seeking commercial gain from their contacts. In tabloid terms, a**e kissing will be illegal. Should have an interesting passage through Parliament.

“Do that and you will have my blessing – and I suspect the blessing from Rupert Murdoch, too.”

See also: “Keep taking the Tabloids” – this page, October 6. 2011.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidwooding

Murdoch still in MPs’ sights

By DAVID WOODING

BRITAIN’S top-selling newspaper was sacrificed to stop the toxicity from the phone hacking scandal infecting the rest of the Murdoch empire. But it is looking more likely by the day that the News of the World closure will have been in vain.

MPs now have James Murdoch clearly in their sights as they continue to dig down into details of decision-making at News International. He is almost certain to be recalled for a grilling after two senior executives openly contradicted evidence the company chairman gave to the Commons two months ago.

Former legal manager Tom Crone today told the Commons culture committee he was “certain” he told Murdoch about an email which suggested illegal interception of voicemail messages was more widespread than first thought. He was backed by ex-NotW Editor Colin Myler when he insisted he spent about 15 minutes discussing it with Murdoch. It’s now a clear case of their word against his – and the media boss is certain to be recalled to explain the conflict to MPs.

The whole focus of the scandal has now switched from the allegedly routine eaves-dropping on private phone messages (yes, we’re all pretty clear that it happened now) to whether bosses mounted a cover up. Some MPs clearly think they did after listening to evidence at today’s hearing.

It emerged that jailed Royal Editor Clive Goodman was given a pay off worth nearly £250,000 when he was sacked for his criminal activity. Former head of legal affairs Jon Chapman told MPs this was to avoid fighting an industrial tribunal at which he could make a whole range of damaging allegations about company practices.

Tory MP Philip Davies said he found it all very strange when the maximum compensation for winning a tribunal in such a case would be £60,000. “He must be the luckiest man on Earth,” he declared. Labour’s Jim Sheridan said he’d been involved in many tribunal cases and never seen anything like it.

No doubt, the 280 innocent News of the World employees who paid a heavy price for his actions will be questioning the size of their own severance terms.

Mr Chapman also admitted that the investigation into phone hacking after Mr Goodman was caught was “very narrow”. He said that 2,500 emails between Goodman and five other people whom he had implicated in the scandal were checked – but no others. Those named were spoken to but all denied being involved in any phone hacking. Mr Chapman defended the email review as a “thorough” and a “careful and diligent exercise” but admitted it was limited in its scope to Goodman’s sacking.

Labour MP Chris Bryant later told me he had detected 53 lies told by News International executives since the controversy began.

MPs still have lots more questions to ask – and then there’s a judicial inquiry and the possibility of more criminal and civil proceedings. They may have scorched the earth by razing the NotW to the ground but the fire is still burning strong.

This will run and run.

(First published on The Spectator’s Coffee House blog, September 6, 2011)

Follow me on Twitter: @davidwooding