The day the worm turned against Murdoch

Yesterday’s debate in the House on phone-hacking was one of the most extraordinary I can remember. The wave of revulsion that swept through the chamber against the gratuitous callouness and cruelty of hacking the phones of the families of victims of murder and terrorism was without precedent in my memory. Both Cameron and Miliband repudiated the Murdoch empire and savaged its works with a following chorus of denunciation throughout the debate and not a word of dissent from any benches. If there is a point at which Murdoch’s corrupting stranglehold over British politics began to fall apart, it was yesterday.

The police inquiry plus now the public inquiry on top of that I believe will destroy the overarching power of the Murdoch press in Britain for a generation. But the immediate issue now is exactly what form the public inquiry will take. It should be headed up by a judge. I used my speech in yesterdays’s debate to make clear I thought it should explore some additional issues as well, as follows:

I strongly support my hon. Friend Chris Bryant and, of course, the demand for a public inquiry, but I want to argue that its remit should perhaps be a little wider than the immediate phone hacking affair.

The central question concerns the governance of News International, the present chief executive of which, Rebekah Brooks, says that it is “inconceivable” that she knew about phone hacking—[ Laughter. ] That was her word. A former News of the World journalist, Paul McMullan, said in effect that it was inconceivable that she did not know, however. The idea that she will stay on, effectively to investigate herself, is simply surreal.

It was News International that paid out large sums of hush money to cover up evidence of criminality within the organisation and that, according to the PCC, lied to the regulator, yet that is the company seeking the right to become the most powerful media company that this country has ever seen. Based on the evidence that is already known—never mind that which is still due to come out from the other 11,000 pages of Glen Mulcaire’s notes—I cannot see how the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport can let that go through. After today and after this week, almost the whole country will be behind that view.

There are wider questions. The first concerns the media plurality that the Secretary of State likes to pray in aid to explain how hemmed in he is by statute. The answer to that question is that, as formulated, the system is antique and obsolete when faced with a behemoth such as the Murdoch empire. The combination of News Corporation and BSkyB will be in a position to distort or bend competition through cross-promotion, price bundling, preventing rivals from advertising and other distortions in the advertising market. The fact is that none of those issues, which are crucial to the question of competitiveness, was even considered by the Secretary of State. That is the decisive reason why he should reconsider.

In particular, the idea cooked up by News International that putting Sky News into a separate company somehow preserves media plurality is utterly spurious. Newco, the company that will run Sky News, will be dependent on News Corporation for 85% of its revenues and for access to the market. The safeguards for editorial independence are weak and of the kind that News International has repeatedly undermined before. Neither Ofcom nor the Office of Fair Trading regards this arrangement as a sustainable solution. The two-week consultation period was clearly inadequate. And the arrangement puts far too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State rather than independent regulators. Those are all very strong reasons why the Secretary of State has to look at this again, after a pause, which the whole House is asking for.

Lastly, I want to say something about the Press Complaints Commission, which is surely one of the most ineffective performers in the regulatory landscape. It played absolutely no role whatever in uncovering the phone hacking revelations; indeed, it far too readily dismissed The Guardian’s original warnings nearly two years ago. I really do think that the PCC has been so poor that the public inquiry should look again at the future of self-regulation after so many cautions, including David Mellor’s warning 20 years ago—”

Because we were then restricted to just 4-minute speeches, I would have added Mellor’s threat in the 1990s: “the press is now drinking at the last chance saloon”. As they say in such places, for self-regulation Time’s up!