Most people don’t really care about the Inquiry into Press Standards being conducted by Lord Justice Brian Leveson. They cared very much, and rightly so, about “journalists” at the now defunct News of the World accessing Milly Dowler’s voicemail account after she had been abducted and (we now know) killed. They cared rather less about similar hacking into the voicemails of celebrities and politicians. They care even less about how close senior politicians from the Labour and Conservative parties were to journalists. At the bottom of the pile of “whatever” comes the public’s interest in what did or did not happen in the course of the culture secretary’s assessment of News International’s bid to take over BSkyB.
I’m not saying that’s right, but rather, that that is what the reality is for the vast majority of people. Even as someone who is interested in politics, interested enough in journalism to have blogged twice about the nugatory Harigate ,and professionally interested in merger control, I can see that this is not something that is engaging the wider public.
Low turnouts in local and national elections and good showings for minority anti-establishment parties like UKIP and Respect suggest that there is already a goodly level of cynicism and mistrust of the major parties. It really isn’t news to most people that the senior members of the two major parties of government have spent years courting the favour of the press and possibly spending more time with journalists and media magnates than they have with their own constituents. It is easy to imagine Tony Blair having considered the time he spent getting Rupert Murdoch onside with New Labour rather more congenial and productive than doing surgeries in Sedgefield and ostentatiously drinking a half of mild in the local working men’s club. It would be more surprising if it were the other way round.
It isn’t particularly horrifying to learn that celebrities, the intimate details of whose lives are regularly served up in the tabloids and gossip magazines with the connivance of their publicists also had their voicemails listened to. Personally I’m more horrified that these same celebrities have been paid out hundreds of thousands in compensation. Is Sienna Miller’s wafer-thin privacy really as valuable a thing to compensate for as an industrial injury that leaves its victim maimed and unable to work again?
This is perhaps a bit of a confession of negligence but I didn’t realise until Vince Cable had to look at it that News International did not already have control of BSkyB. For me, and I suspect most people if they are honest, the assumption was that Murdoch was so inextricably identified with BSkyB that it made little difference whether his business in fact had all the shares in it or not. As a football fan I was used to Sky Sports being described as Murdoch telly. One of the crown jewels of Sky’s non-sports output is The Simpsons, which is produced by Fox, also part of News International, and transparently enough so that it often expressly refers to this and plays on the villain Monty Burns as basically being like Rupert Murdoch. Every comment piece in The Times about media has for years included the information that it is part of the News group. Both Cable and Hunt have been guilty of inappropriate ministerial behaviour in respect of the BSkyB takeover but ultimately neither had a lot they could do to alter the course of events. The merger control process, although giving the Secretary of State the ultimate say still required the final decision to be made in a way which was not susceptible to judicial review. The main thing that the case demonstrates is that it may be time to remove ministers from merger control decisions completely. This is what has happened in all other cases (until the 2002 Enterprise Act all merger decisions were formally taken by ministers), with media mergers remaining subject to ministerial decision on the basis that the pure public interest could only be determined by elected politicians. Given the disastrousness of the only other case of ministerial decision which completely overrode officials’ advice (Lloyds/HBOS which required emergency secondary legislation to go through without a reference to the Competition Commission), there looks to be a good case for taking ministers out of the equation entirely other than in cases relating to national security.
So, some journalists may face jail. Jeremy Hunt might eventually lose his job. Random oligarchs from the former USSR and middle eastern Sheikhs might get to buy up The Times, The Sun and Sky for a knockdown price on the basis that no-one knows what they think and that they might not really care about what goes out through the media they own. Will these be achievements that make people think any differently about which government will see to the improvement of their living conditions the best? Which one might deliver economic growth, jobs and better public services? Should they start to care about Leveson and stop living a life without Brian to make things better for themselves and everyone else? I don’t think so.