Posted by Nicholas Jones
Yet again the Leveson Inquiry has failed to examine the nuts and bolts of the political patronage which was exercised by the Murdoch press. When giving his evidence George Osborne – one of the key strategists in the Conservatives' 2010 general election victory – was not challenged further after stating he “could not remember a specific strategy" by the Conservatives to seek the endorsement of the Sun newspaper.
Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, let Osborne's answer pass without a single detailed supplementary question (11.6.2012). Jay made no mention of the signed articles and exclusive interviews given by the Conservative leader David Cameron in support of Sun campaigns.
Perhaps the most glaring omission of all was Jay's failure to question Osborne on the pre-election support given by the Conservatives to the campaign in the Sun and the News of the World for a freeze in the BBC licence fee – a freeze which was duly delivered by the coalition government within months of the 2010 general election.
If Jay had taken the opportunity, he could have put Osborne's answers to the test: there were repeated examples of campaigns waged the Sun and News of the World which were endorsed by Cameron and which were clearly the inspiration of the Conservatives' spin doctor Andy Coulson,
Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was given similarly light-touch treatment when questioned over the sequence of events in the early months of 2007 that led the Conservatives, on Osborne's recommendation, to choose Coulson, the ex-editor of the News of the World, as the party's director of communications.
Coulson had resigned after the jailing of the News of the World's royal editor Clive Goodman and the private investigator Glen Mulcaire. He was sounded out for the Conservatives' job over a drink with Osborne. Osborne recalled asking if there was some “as yes undisclosed part" of Coulson's involvement in phone hacking which the Conservatives were not aware of. Coulson said there was not; he had resigned because of what had happened but was not aware of anything further to “come out."
Jay left unasked questions regarding the need for due diligence: had the Conservative Party made its own inquiries? And, why when Coulson went on to be appointed the government's director of communications, were no further checks made in view of continuing reports which challenged News International's claim that only one reporter had been involved in phone hacking?
Osborne stressed repeatedly that Coulson's connections with News International and his friendship with Rebekah Brooks had not been factors in his appointment; he was chosen because of his experience as editor of a national newspaper, running a national newsroom, and his ability to handle the hour-by-hour problems thrown up in a fast-moving news environment. “No one has mounted a serious complaint about the way he conducted himself when he was director of communications for the Conservative Party...and there was no complaint about the way in which he handled himself as director of communications for the government, one of the most controversial jobs in Britain."
Osborne agreed with Jay that Coulson had been “helpful" in securing the Sun's endorsement of the Conservatives in 2010 but the Sun's endorsement had been elevated to an almost mythical status; the Conservatives would have done well in the general election without the Sun's endorsement. “I don't remember a specific Sun strategy...We were aware of the importance of the Sun because of the role people think it plays in British politics. Our view was that it was not going to be anything like a deciding factor."
Osborne said that in the end Rupert Murdoch supported the Conservatives and switched support because he felt the Labour government had run out of steam. “I don't think there was a conspiracy which fused the endorsement of the Sun with the commercial interests of the Murdoch Press...We were trying to make the merits of the Conservatives' cause clear the Sun."
At this point Jay could easily have referred to the News of the World's exclusive story in November 2008 about the “more than fifty" BBC executives who earned more than the Prime Minister and David Cameron's follow up article next day in the Sun: “Bloated BBC out of touch with viewers".
Alternatively Jay might have asked about the Conservatives' pre-election commitment to scale back the BBC which was trumpeted with the Sun headline: “Cameron: We'll freeze the licence fee"; or perhaps an alternative might have been the campaign by James Murdoch against the broadcasting regulator Ofcom and Cameron's promise – again trumpeted by the Sun – to return to government Ofcom's policy-making functions.
The Conservatives' pitch for the Sun's endorsement could not have been any more blatant: if Cameron won the election the Conservatives were ready to be as accommodating as Margaret Thatcher had been to the expansion plans of the Murdoch empire.