Time for Labour rethink

Miliband is just as responsible as Cameron for News International corruption, writes Michael Copestake (first published in the Weekly Worker)

It was six weeks before the 1997 general election that The Sun newspaper – at the behest of its proprietor, chief executive and chair of the News Corporation monopoly Rupert Murdoch – lent its support to Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Blair and Murdoch: cosy

This was the culmination of a two-year project by the Labour leadership to woo the media baron that began in 1995 shortly after the election of Blair as Labour leader. Never again, they thought, must The Sun be the one ‘wot won it’ for the Tories following Neil Kinnock’s defeat in the 1992 general election. This offensive, in combination with the business-friendly ‘prawn cocktail offensive’ in the City, the PR popularity of Blair’s New Labour and the stench of death from the ancien régime of John Major’s Tories, more or less ensured that the Murdoch press would be backing Blair – seeking to influence the Labour government in key areas in return for its continued support.

This became a lasting relationship, helped in no small part by the fawning attitude of Blair himself towards the rightwing press and its sensitivities, and the drawn-out period of directionlessness exhibited by the Conservative Party. For 12 long years the Labour leadership basked in the glow of Murdoch’s approval.

It was during the 2009 Labour conference that one side filed for divorce. With Gordon Brown floundering and a Tory Party reviving under David Cameron, Murdoch could see which way things were going. News Corporation’s opening volley was an attempt to exploit a handwritten letter of condolence that prime minister Brown had sent to the relatives of a soldier who had been killed in action, a letter which had contained spelling mistakes and was written with a large, black felt pen, a result of Brown’s partial-sightedness. Though somewhat of an own goal due to its sheer callousness, it was a sign of things to come. Beneath the surface, the phone-hacking scandal, which has now erupted around the News of the World, was already brewing, with as far back as 2006 Tony Blair himself applying pressure on the now vocal anti-Murdoch MP Tom Watson to keep hush on the matter. Gordon Brown too courted Murdoch for his support and was a personal friend to Rebekah Brooks – not that this helped him in the end, which, when it came, left him furious and upset.

Certainly Labour has a conflicted relationship with the capitalist media – one characterised by fear and dislike on the one hand and dependence on the other. Even under present circumstances, where current Labour leader Ed Miliband has effectively declared war on the British wing of the News Corporation empire – calling for the head (well, the job) of Rebekah Brooks and the killing off of the now abandoned buy-out of the BSkyB shareholdings by Murdoch – it is hard to see the Labour rightwing leadership extricating itself entirely from the mess. Labour has been completely dependent on maintaining good relations with big business in general, but in particular the media. Miliband might now bridle at what he calls the “unhealthy” relationship between politicians and the media – but this is clearly a pose he has decided to adopt only in the last week or two.

Because of the bitter legacy of the 1986-87 Wapping dispute – 6,000 printers were sacked – under Neil Kinnock the Labour Party officially refused interviews with organs of News International and the 1987 Labour manifesto contained a vaguely worded commitment to “place limits on the concentration of ownership” of the media. Needless to say, Kinnock was viciously attacked for this, with The Sun, at the forefront of the baying press pack. The strategic defeat for the working class that occurred with the defeat of the miners, printers, dockers and steelworkers and four successive Tory general election victories persuaded the big guns in the trade union bureaucracy to give their backing to Tony Blair and New Labour.

New Labour’s ‘realism’ was in fact bootlicking of the worst sort – even Kinnock, who had taken the lead in purging Militant Tendency in the mid-1980s, was mortified by the overtures made to Murdoch by the Blair team under Alastair Campbell. Apparently Kinnock laid the blame for his 1992 electoral loss at the door of The Sun. Campbell, himself a former Mirror journalist, traditionally a Labour-supporting paper, therefore considered it essential to win over, or at least neutralise, the rightwing press, crucially The Sun. This was presented as the Labour Party getting savvy with the modern mass media and public relations techniques – in reality its politics were being determined by what was acceptable to the capitalist media that could never quite trust the Labour Party even when led by Blair. The role of the trade unions, its history, its base in the working class engender deep suspicion. To reassure, to show that it can be trusted, the Labour right must uphold the interests of capital and therefore attack and disappoint its own base. That includes constant attacks on internal democracy, albeit in the name of democracy, and imposing more and more bureaucratic controls over ranks and file MPs, councillors and members. As a result the Labour Party tends to atrophy at the base and therefore the right becomes ever more dependent on the capitalist media. A vicious circle.

The labour movement once had it own media. Eg, from 1912 there was the Daily Herald, which in 1933 reached a circulation of over two million and was credited with being the world’s best selling newspaper. However, starved of advertising revenues and under increasingly rightwing editors, circulation gradually declined. In 1964 the paper was relauched as The Sun - it was sold to Murdoch and News International in 1969 and, as they say, the rest is history.

While Labour, just like the Tories and Liberal Democrats, had an interest in playing down the phone-hacking scandal before it extended beyond the realms of the ‘celebs’ and even royalty, once kidnap and murder victims like Milly Dowler, relatives of dead soldiers and so forth were shown to have been targeted, the front bench had to be seen to take the lead, such was the public outrage. Of course, this does not mark a qualitative break, Miliband will continue to rely on the rightwing media, it is just that for the moment News International has become toxic in the popular mind.

The Labour Party’s current chief spin doctor, Tom Baldwin, successor to Alastair Campbell, is therefore a bit of an embarrassment. He is a former Times journalist. His appointment was seen as an advance in one sense – while Campbell was never employed by a Murdoch company, Baldwin could provide more direct insight and key contacts with News International personnel.

The leadership continues to believe their papers can be made to ‘work’ for Labour. Which is why the leadership, just like the Tories and Lib Dems, will content itself with calls for public enquiries, parliamentary committees and further police investigations. Instead what the left should be demanding is that the Labour Party launches its own media machine, not just websites and occasional in-house glossies, but mass publications, which can only be driven by a daily electronic and print paper. The finances are there with the trade unions and the cooperatives. There are countless honest journalists eager to expose capitalist corruption, lies and hypocrisy. There is certainly an audience out there that has become completely disenchanted with the mainstream bourgeois press and media.

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