The call of the Hunt.
After yesterday's fireworks with James, and I can't help picturing advisers and politicians running around Thick of It style while he was giving evidence about the Fred Michel emails, the hope was for more of the same from Keith himself. Instead, what we got was much the same performance he gave to the media committee, albeit without the crap about how this was the most humble day of his life. There were the long pregnant pauses, the occasional thump of the table, and also the same failures of memory. He couldn't for instance remember that David Cameron back into 2008 had interrupted his summer holiday to pay a visit to the mogul on one of his yachts, although thankfully Wendi Deng, not called upon this time to swat a twat with a pie, did recall the happy event and jogged his memory.
Likewise, he'd also forgotten completely about meeting with Mrs Thatcher back in 1981, right at the point at which he was jockeying to take over the Times and Sunday Times. Strangely though, despite being unable to recall what was discussed at this personal tete-a-tete with the prime minister, Murdoch is absolutely certain that Woodrow Wyatt was wrong to claim in his diaries that he had asked Thatcher to "bend the rules" on his behalf. Harold Evans, who Murdoch went on to claim had begged him to tell him how to edit the paper, relates how this meeting with Thatcher, details of which were only released earlier this year, is inexplicably not part of the official history of the Times. Any suggestion that the takeover would otherwise have been referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, as it should have been, had this meeting not happened is quite obviously untrue.
That sort of thing just isn't Rupert's style. Moreover, with the possible exception of the above, when The Sun had not yet quite become the behemoth it was to be during the 80s, he hasn't needed to directly ask. As Paul Keating has said, and as Robert Jay threw at Keith, you don't make deals, or at least not in so many words; you have understandings that are in place until they are no longer to his benefit. Wyatt understood this as Murdoch made his "deal" with Tony Blair; it didn't matter that the Conservatives had cleared the path for him to build his empire, the political wind had changed. As long as Blair was amenable to his business interests, and he was, then he would switch his paper's support. It's true, as John Rentoul has said, that Murdoch didn't get everything his own way: he was blocked from buying Manchester United, and having come to a similar "understanding" over there being a referendum on the European constitution, Blair subsequently went back on it. The point was that as Alastair Campbell has said repeatedly, almost anything was worth it if the end result was that the Sun front page on the morning of the general election didn't have the Labour leader's head in a lightbulb on it.
Murdoch's power became such that the politicians had to go to him, not the other way around, hence the grating shtick from before that he wished they'd leave him alone. Blair flew round the world, Cameron went to his yacht, but once in power it just became too embarrassing for all concerned. Spin doctors had to tell BBC journos not to film Blair hugging and kissing Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch had to go in the back door of Number 10, Jeremy Hunt had to hide behind a tree. If you were to believe Keith, then all this nonsense about him controlling politicians through his newspapers is a myth created by the Guardian and Independent. Any suggestion from past editors and employees, like Andrew Neil or Martin Dunn to the contrary just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
Only occasionally did he spout the most easily disprovable nonsense, as the new quote now residing at the top of this blog demonstrates. Really, Rupert? You've never once promoted Sky in the Sun, or torn shreds off the BBC in its pages? Are you sure you don't need a bit of a rest before you continue?
While he will indeed continue tomorrow, something even more hilarious was happening over in the Commons. Jeremy Hunt not only had the gall to stand up and give a statement on why he should still be a minister, he told the House that his special adviser Adam Smith had "unintentionally" gone too far in leaking and passing various incredibly helpful bits of information about what was happening with the BSkyB bid to Frederic Michel. Despite Hunt last night claiming that he had done nothing wrong, with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg on Newsnight more or less saying that Michel was a Walter Mitty figure, the following morning Smith had to be the sacrificial lamb. Dennis Skinner's bluntness doesn't always score points, but he was dead right in his observation that when "posh boys are in trouble, they sack their servants".
Hunt of course had absolutely no idea what his SpAd had been up to. What's more, his following of all the due process, consulting Ofcom when he could have just waved the bid through proved that his decision had indeed been "quasi-judicial". It didn't matter that in the emails his apparent stalling was explained as "[Hunt] very specifically said he was keen to get to the same outcome and wanted JRM to understand he needs to build some political cover", his behaviour had been of the very cleanest calibre. Michel was just doing what all lobbyists do, which is exaggerate their influence and try and pass themselves off as being just as powerful as those making the actual decision. That Michel was passed information before it was released to the markets that was identical to that subsequently released, or that he was informed of questions that were going to be asked in parliament before it happened was just over-eagerness on Smith's part. It also doesn't matter that the ministerial code is crystal clear on how ministers are responsible for the actions of their SpAds. The only person who can judge Hunt is Lord Leveson himself.
The absurdity of Vince Cable being removed from his role in deciding on the BSkyB bid for "blatant bias" on the back of one boastful comment while Jeremy Hunt stays in his job despite his collusion with News Corp being documented in black and white can only be explained by how if Hunt goes, it's another of Cameron's human shields that's bit the dust. While Gordon Brown was allegedly "declaring war" on News International, Cameron was setting out on how he wouldn't just respect Murdoch's business interests, he'd actively help them. He kept his side of the bargain, right up until he was forced into ordering the Leveson inquiry by a scandal that News International imagined they could bury. Murdoch's vengeance for that is not yet complete.