Monday, November 11, 2013 

The real victors? The pirates.

As I suspect was the case with most other people, I cautiously welcomed BT's successful bid for the rights to show 38 Premier League matches a season.  I have neither the inclination nor the money to subscribe to Sky or BT, and frankly anything that undermines Sky's ultimate owner is fine by me.  I make do with 5 Live and Match of the Day, and don't think I miss anything not hearing the insights of Jamie Redknapp, or even Gary Neville.  Analysis of the game has always been done better in the papers, and the mute button works wonderfully when it comes to Alan Shearer and most of the other cretins the BBC employs, although it doesn't quite work when Robbie Savage is co-commentating on the radio.  Terrestrial broadcasting of Premier League matches clearly isn't coming back, and I have no problem with the decadence the game has sunk into since Sky invented football back in 1992 being on the conscience of others.

It looks as though, as per usual, we should be careful what we wish for.  Emboldened by signing up 2 million subscribers, BT has spent an astonishing near £900m to secure the rights to every Champions League and Europa League game, more than double the sum ITV and Sky jointly paid 3 years ago. Come 2015, those who don't wish to further enrich the oligarchs of the intertwined business and football worlds will have to make do with the final of both competitions, and probably just the one free-to-air game featuring a home team a season, likely translating to a grand total of 6 matches in the CL shown gratis a year.  ITV currently show one game live every round of the competition, so those not prepared to shell out are soon to be in a similar position to F1 fans stiffed by the deal cut between the BBC and Sky.  To get an idea of how out of reach coverage is becoming to the BBC, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5, the BBC's total yearly income courtesy of the licence fee (including the government picking up the tab for the over 75s) amounts to £3.65bn.

While you can detest how the modern game has developed, the Champions League, despite the best efforts of UEFA under Michel Platini is something of a rejoinder to the glib sentiments of those who argue the Premier League is the best in the world and an unalloyed good for football in this country.  Unable to watch foreign leagues free to air, Champions League games let us compare just how good the top four truly are, as well as how the different systems of training and development on the continent contrast to our own.  Over the past couple of years it's been obvious that despite the vast sums injected into the top clubs, the Uniteds and Cities have fallen well short of the top sides from Spain and Germany, while Chelsea were lucky to win on 2012 on penalties.

The loss of most of the free-to-air matches will certainly do nothing to fix the gap developing between British sides and our European brethren, while likely exacerbating further the stranglehold the clubs with the most money have on the top half of the Premier League.  Despite none of the four English clubs making it past the quarter finals last season, they still shared £100m between them, while the winners, Bayern Munich, picked up £43.2m.  These sums will only increase with the new deals.  Nor is there any suggestion Sky will cut its prices having lost another of its selling points, while BT admits it will have to put its own up, on top of the 6.5% rise their customers already face in January.   Despite this, BT's head of consumer division has the chutzpah to say "in difficult times people deserve access to sport".  Chance would be a fine thing.

If there is one slight reason to be optimistic, it's that despite the best efforts of the Premier League and others, illegal streaming of live games over the internet continues to grow.  They may have had First Row blocked by court order, but other sites quickly sprang up to replace it, while those already established have not yet been targeted.  For every fan who decides to subscribe to BT, another will say screw it and turn to the streams.  It's not yet a challenge to the game and the broadcasters as say piracy has become to the music industry, it's true, but as more and more homes get access to super fast broadband the potential is there for games to be streamed in similar quality to that they're transmitted in, albeit with a slight delay.  Only then might live football once again become available to those without deep pockets.

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Thursday, May 31, 2012 

The hunt will go on.

When the news came through last night that Andy Coulson had been charged with perjury, you can't help but suspect that Jeremy Hunt sighed with relief. The already slight chance that he would today be sacked or referred to the cabinet secretary/Sir Alex Allen following his evidence to the Leveson inquiry was almost entirely extinguished. After all, for two of David Cameron's acquaintances to be charged with a serious criminal offence is unfortunate; three begins to look like carelessness. Amusing as it is that Rebekah Brooks and her husband are facing the beak over perverting the course of justice, it's ever so slightly more damaging that Coulson was allegedly telling lies to a Scottish court while still Cameron's director of communications. Hunt therefore simply has to stay: not only is he continuing to provide cover for Cameron himself, whose judgement looks more and more suspect by the hour, he's also now doing much the same for George Osborne.

One of the key new pieces of information disclosed today was that within minutes of Robert Peston disclosing that Vince Cable had said he had declared war on Rupert Murdoch, Hunt was on the phone to James Murdoch in a call arranged earlier in the day, Hunt having already texted Murdoch junior to congratulate him on the European Commission saying the BSkyB bid could go ahead. Whether or not Murdoch had an inkling about what was coming or not isn't clear, although it's long been rumoured that the source of Peston's story was Will Lewis, formerly the Torygraph's editor-in-chief and shortly to join News Corp's Management and Standards Committee. No doubt having been subjected to a typically Murdochian haranguing from James, Hunt straight after emailed both Andy Coulson and George Osborne, saying he was "seriously worried we are going to screw this up". 48 minutes later, Osborne texted Hunt saying "I hope you like the solution!"

Hunt almost certainly did: he had after all written a memo complaining bitterly about how Cable had referred the BSkyB bid to Ofcom, and how James was, unusually for him, "pretty furious about it". Hunt's entire memo was just about as partisan as it gets, and expressed effective contempt for those opposed to the takeover. The original draft also gives the game away in two key ways: first in how he worries that it will put them in the wrong place politically, which he today claimed was a reference to the usual Conservative values of belief in free markets rather than how they were in danger of royally pissing off their friends at News International, and secondly in how it makes clear that News Corp viewed the takeover as effectively the move to Wapping all over again, giving them full spectrum dominance of the UK media. Why else would the takeover bid have been named Project Rubicon, otherwise?

Despite all this evidence of his own acute bias, including a phone call he made to Murdoch after being specifically advised that he should not make such contact with him, Hunt was duly passed the task of exercising "quasi-judicial" oversight on the takeover, a concept which prior to 2010 Hunt freely admits he had not encountered. Now the battle of contradictions begins: Hunt on the record stated that he could not have wished for a more diligent special adviser than Adam Smith, repeatedly praising him for his hard work, and said that he didn't believe there was a minister who had worked more closely with their SpAd. Smith knew what Hunt knew, and knew what he had to be careful about, and yet at the same time Fred Michel, News Corp's lobbyist, was bombarding Smith with emails and texts and getting plenty back in return. Hunt claims to have been shocked when the full extent of their contact was exposed and claimed he knew nothing of it, despite having been in personal contact with both Michel and James Murdoch during the same period, both of whom were saying much the same things to him as Michel had to Smith. Either he worked incredibly closely with Smith as he said, or he didn't. We didn't get a proper answer as to which it was.

Come the day after James Murdoch's evidence to Leveson, and it was clear someone was for the chop. It wasn't going to be Hunt though, oh no. Sure, he considered resigning himself, but "it wouldn't have been appropriate". Instead his incredibly close adviser had to sacrifice himself, despite the fact that Hunt accepts he has ultimate responsibility for his SpAd's actions and under the ministerial code that means that he should also go. David Cameron has for his part decided to completely ignore this aspect of the code, just as he decided it was Gus O'Donnell who should investigate Liam Fox over Adam Werritty, the result being an completely inadequate report, rather than commissioning a independent and in-depth investigation by the actual person employed to oversee the code.

Inept then doesn't even really begin to describe the coalition as it stands at the moment. At its best (bear with me) it's just cynical, whether it's Hunt claiming that he didn't know phone hacking was "a volcano waiting to erupt", or the Treasury today leaking midway through Hunt's evidence that the proposed cap on tax-deductible charity donations would be dropped, something that seems to have succeeded as the BBC are running it as their top story tonight. At worst, it's so stuck in the mire that all it can do is just hope that the focus shifts elsewhere, as a further eruption in the Eurozone might provide. In any other government Hunt would and should be finished. It's due to David Cameron's utter weakness just two years into office that Hunt is still culture secretary tonight.

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Friday, May 11, 2012 

A liar or an idiot.

Apart from the new email showing further proof of the closeness between Jeremy Hunt and Fred Michel, the most crucial piece of evidence given by Rebekah Brooks today at the Leveson inquiry was that she didn't believe her publishing of the details of sex offenders in the News of the World in the aftermath of the kidnap and murder of Sarah Payne would lead to reprisals. There are only two conclusions you can draw from such apparent insouciance: either Brooks is a liar, or she's an idiot. Her entire campaign was designed to force politicians to do something, and she and her staff knew that the precise way to do that was to get into the public domain information that would almost certainly lead, if not to vigilante action, than at the very least abuse and protests against those named. She perhaps didn't anticipate a paediatrician being targeted by mistake, but she absolutely knew what she was doing.

It's through this prism that you have to view the rest of her evidence, which was mostly mind-numbing in the extreme. Despite the fact she has been close to the last three prime ministers, we're meant to believe that this was all down to sheer friendliness on her part. Yes, obviously they thought they could get something by almost drawing her into their inner circle, but never once did she compromise her position as a journalist and never once did they compromise their position as a politician through their relationship.

Thankfully, Robert Jay was on far better form today than he was against the stonewalling Andy Coulson yesterday. He also seemed far better briefed. Brooks had to deny, unconvincingly, that she had variously demanded that Downing Street order a reopening of the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, else Theresa May would be appearing on the front page of the Sun every day until they did; that she did not, as widely reported, tell Andy Coulson that the Sun would not support the Conservatives until Dominic Grieve was moved from his job as shadow home secretary, having had the temerity to say to Brooks's face the Sun's coverage of crime and the Human Rights Act was hysterical; and that she did not in a phone call to Ed Balls demand the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith following the Baby Peter case, else they would "turn this thing on him".

Funny, isn't it, that there all these stories, all apparently untrue, about Brooks using her power and influence to demand things of politicians and yet she didn't believe there was anything inappropriate about the level of contact between the then editor of the biggest selling newspaper in the country and those making the law. She also didn't believe that politicians were trying to get to Rupert through contact with her, which is just about as obtuse as her evidence got. It was fascinating to learn though that David Cameron spoke to her repeatedly about the phone hacking accusations against the Screws, and yet he apparently never spoke to Andy Coulson about it. Very strange.

In spite then of how apparently little they discussed the BSkyB bid, which Brooks knew of two months before it was announced (it just so happens that it was almost in line with the Tories coming to power), it was mostly just Tories who commiserated with her when she was forced into resigning. It was done indirectly, naturally, and some of the reported words are not exact, but it is true that Cameron more or less said that he was sorry he couldn't show her the same loyalty she had shown him, as Ed Miliband had him on the run. He needn't have been concerned. Brooks today was loyalty personified. One suspects however that it won't save her from a short stretch in either Styal or Holloway.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012 

The eternal darkness of Coulson's spotless mind.

If, like me, you've seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and thought that the possibility of having certain memories wiped from your brain isn't necessarily a bad thing, then it seems that at long last a treatment has been developed that can achieve exactly that. It's called the Leveson inquiry.

Difficult as it is to believe, considering we've now had evidence
from both James and Rupert Murdoch, neither of whom could remember almost anything controversial that has happened to them, the latest sufferer of amnesia to testify seems to have the most serious case. Andy Coulson could barely remember his name, let alone almost anything else that's happened to him over the past decade.

Here's an incomplete list of the things he couldn't recall: the conversations he had with Rupert Murdoch about the news content while editor of the News of the World; any conversation with KRM about the paper's endorsement at the 2005 election; any mention of his previous employment when George Osborne enquired whether he'd be interested in becoming the Tories' chief spin doctor; any shadow cabinet minister other than David Cameron asking about phone hacking; whether News Corp's lobbyist, Fred Michel, attended a lunch with Cameron and the then Spanish prime minister; whether Cameron sought further assurances from him after the Guardian's phone hacking revelations in 2009; any specific conversation about the News of the World's endorsement of the Tories in 2010; when he knew that the Sun was going to endorse the Tories in 2009; or having any conversation with Fred Michel, Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Hunt or any other politician about the BSkyB takeover bid.

It was all unflinchingly loyal, and it was also absolutely infuriating. At times Coulson bordered on being incredulous at Robert Jay's questioning; did he really have to spell out why the Tories wanted him to deal with the media? His body language said exactly what he refused to, that it was breathtakingly obvious. As Michael Wolff writes, Coulson was the key conduit between News International and the Conservatives, and he alongside Rebekah Brooks was chiefly responsible for convincing Murdochs junior and senior that Cameron was a surer bet than Labour. It didn't matter that he didn't have a background in politics, as that was secondary. This is exactly why Cameron couldn't have cared less whether Coulson knew about hacking at the Screws, and why he apparently didn't enquire further regardless of all the warnings he was given. As long as he delivered in terms of the reason he was hired, and wasn't catastrophic at dealing with the rest of the media, he'd be just fine.

It was only once in office that the problems really started, as the whole phone hacking caper simply wouldn't go away. Coulson didn't go through developed vetting for obvious reasons, even though all his predecessors and indeed his successors have: they knew he wouldn't have passed. That he thinks he may well have seen top secret material and also sat in on national security meetings just shows the contempt Cameron felt for all the criticism he came in for over his hugging close of Coulson. He felt, just as Blair and Brown did when they sent commiserations to Coulson over his resignation from the Screws, that this phone hacking business was just part of the greater game. No one got hurt, apart from a few celebrities, and who cared about them?

Cameron's continuing loyalty was reciprocated in full. Coulson was "disappointed" with the Sun's coming out in favour of the Tories, as it was more about Labour losing their support than the Tories gaining it. That the paper did it on the day of Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour conference for maximum effect went unmentioned. Indeed, on the whole he felt that the Sun's coverage wasn't obsequious enough, apparently forgetting that on election morning the Sun splashed with a take on the Obama hope poster, claiming Cameron was the country's "only hope". Attempting to make further mischief, Coulson also claimed that a Guardian executive told him "not to write off" the possibility the paper could endorse the Tories, something Alan Rusbridger responded to by tweeting, Coulson fashion, that no one at Kings Road could recall such a conversation.

Remarkably, when he could remember certain details, he often seemed to be mistaken. Coulson complains bitterly in his witness statement (PDF) that following the Matt Driscoll tribunal ruling "it prompted a torrent of publicity in which I was repeatedly branded a bully". Considering that at the time only the Guardian, Independent and Private Eye so much as mentioned the finding of the tribunal, this is just ever so slightly hyperbolic. Likewise, he thought his answer to why there couldn't possibly have been a secret deal between News International and the Conservatives over the BSkyB bid was compelling: why did Vince Cable become business secretary with jurisdiction over approving it when someone else could have been put in place? The obvious answer is that it was part of the deal when the coalition was formed. In any case, if Cable had to be removed from his role over his apparent bias, why wasn't the same process followed over Jeremy Hunt, who had previously said he wanted to act as a cheerleader for the Murdochs? And why is Hunt now still being defended to the hilt when the case against him is far more compelling that it ever was against Cable?

Coulson's evidence was summed up when he said that he was "too busy" to divest himself of the shares he received in News Corporation as part of his severance package. He was working far too hard to be bothered to ensure there was no possible conflict of interest in his role, apparently immersing himself fully in the detail of his job, and yet now he can barely recall much of what was he was doing. He was the very definition of an unreliable witness, but it was precisely this approach that will have delighted Downing Street. How Cameron must be hoping that Rebekah Brooks takes a similar tact tomorrow.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012 

Louise Mensch goes stray for pay! (Or, seeking attention and then complaining about the downsides of doing so.)

Louise Mensch has it seems been taking lessons in distracting attention away from legitimate criticism from Nadine Dorries. Yesterday Mensch tagged a few, and it should be stressed it is a few, unpleasant tweets from various people and then complained about how horrible it is being bullied on social networking websites. First off, some of them aren't unpleasant or anything approaching bullying, they're funny and intended as ironic: Jared Earle asking whether she'll be doing page 3 considering her support for the Murdochs amuses me, even if it doesn't anyone else. At the other end of the scale there's Vice magazine, doing a passable impression of SugaRape by asking "crusties" on May Day whether they'd have sex with her despite the fact she's a Tory. That's just so witty and outrageous guys! Next you'll be going "stray" for pay and writing about it!

On the whole though, they're just the fairly standard comments that anyone in the public eye and active online can expect to get. It's not nice and no one's pretending it is, but it isn't going to change, regardless of how many times the likes of the Sun print articles about how evil trolls are. And really, Mensch should have a thick enough skin by now not to get upset about being called a cunt. As for the Guardian then weighing in about how terrible this misogyny is, both of those referring to her as a slut are women (and one then said it was a joke just to get her to favourite her tweet). It's not so much about sexism as it is about most people just reaching for the nearest and most obvious insult: portraying it as something more than that often gives too much credit to the person dishing out the abuse. Furthermore, Peter Oborne got it right in his piece for the Telegraph today when he described Mensch as an "attention seeker", which is exactly what she is. Seek attention, as Mensch did on Tuesday by touring round every TV and radio station she could denouncing the report declaring that Rupert Murdoch wasn't fit to run News Corp, and you can't then expect to always have your position critiqued in calm, courteous terms.

One suspects that the real reason Mensch decided to highlight the abuse she was receiving was to take attention away from the fact that the main point she was making on Tuesday, that the "not fit" criticism was put in at the last minute, simply wasn't true. It had in fact first been proposed back at the end of March, when the chair of the committee, John Wittingdale, said it would have to be voted on later as it was clearly controversial and a consensus wouldn't be able to be reached without one. Tom Watson has since claimed that a second letter from James Murdoch to the committee appeared to "uncannily" answer many of the concerns raised by the committee in private conversations. Louise Mensch admits she received a briefing from Fred Michel, the News Corp lobbyist who had a "close" relationship with Jeremy Hunt's special adviser, but that it was declared and she did not discuss the committee's work on the report. Even if nothing was untoward, Mensch declaring that she found James Murdoch a "compelling, convincing and consistent" witness suggests that she's either gullible (unlikely) or exceptionally willing for whatever reason to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The other effect of all this has been to successfully relieve the pressure on David Cameron over his judgement and links to the Murdochs, which was precisely what the Tories aimed to do in the first place by reducing the criticism of both junior and senior. Next week we might just get back to that: Rebekah Brooks is appearing at the Leveson inquiry and she may well reveal the texts exchanged between Cameron and herself. Not even Louise Mensch will able to distract attention away from what they may well contain.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012 

"Not fit."


The select committee system has at long last come of age. Today's report by the culture, media and sport committee into News International and phone hacking (PDF) is absolutely devastating, even more critical than this morning's Guardian report suggested it would be. While neither James or Rupert Murdoch are criticised for directly misleading parliament, the majority decision to say that Keith showed "wilful blindness" and so is not a "fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company" is as strong as it gets.

It's also, in spite of both what Louise Mensch said at the press conference this morning and News Corporation have since released in a statement, completely justified. It most certainly is partisan though, just in the completely opposite way to that implied by Mensch and News Corp. Mensch claimed that the committee had heard no evidence which could justify reaching the conclusion the majority did on Murdoch, when in fact the case is clear cut and set out unflinchingly; the entire section from paragraph 201 onwards on the corporate culture at News Corporation is detailed and focused on just that. News Corporation asked the committee to believe that even after the Guardian had published its 2009 expose on the Gordon Taylor settlement and they had issued their first report criticising the "collective amnesia" at the company that no one at the highest executive level questioned what they claim they were being told. They point out that even after the supposed epiphany in December 2010, as James Murdoch characterised it, the company was still claiming in its defence to the Sienna Miller's claim for damages that no other journalists had been involved with Glenn Mulcaire.

Since then the approach has been equally transparent: put all the blame on Colin Myler, Tom Crone and Jonathan Chapman. Involved as they undoubtedly were in the cover up, to believe it was all them is the equivalent of nonsense on stilts. Rebekah Brooks testified that "on average" she spoke to her benefactor "every other day"; are we supposed to believe that Rupert never enquired about the local difficulty with which she was personally dealing with, accusing the Graun of "likely deliberately misleading the British public", and also never talked about it with James? If, as he claimed at Leveson last week, he had long wanted to get rid of the News of the World, why didn't he at an earlier point use the scandal to act?

The reality is that as the report states Murdoch has displayed "excellent powers of recall and grasp of detail" ... "when it has suited him". All the more dubious then that when asked whether he knew for certain in January 2011 that the "rogue reporter" defence was false, he claimed to have forgotten the exact date. Furthermore, although the report doesn't make the exact argument, the fact that he saw nothing wrong with the approach taken by Neville Thurlbeck in the Max Mosley case, with his attempt to blackmail one of the women involved is a wonderful example of the culture that operated at News International, not necessarily specifically sanctioned at the highest level, but certainly condoned.

It's ridiculous then for Mensch and the other Conservatives on the committee (Therese Coffey voted against every additional criticism of both the Murdochs) to claim that it wasn't within their remit to declare whether or not Rupert was a fit and proper person to helm News Corp, and that's solely for Ofcom to decide. What is the point of politicians, and indeed a media committee unless it is make their views plain on a matter of this much importance? There was a culture of illegality at a company which was attempting to obtain a stranglehold on the British media, as the takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation would have achieved. This culture was, as even Rupert Murdoch admits, covered up. Either the executives at the company didn't know about it, in which case they were lied to and incompetent, or they knew about it and connived in it. Only finding that they thought Rupert and James's approach to everything "astonishing", as the Tories on the committee wanted the report to say, is not just a cop out, it's weak and pusillanimous.

Their real reasoning for wanting to do so though is politically sound. They know full well that this once again brings David Cameron and his lack of judgement into the equation. Yes, everyone sucked up to Murdoch, but this isn't just about Cameron being unlucky that the music stopped on his watch, it's about how he went further than New Labour ever did and installed as his spin doctor Andy Coulson, a man who resigned as News of the World editor because like the two Murdochs he knew absolutely nothing about what had happened on his watch. Despite being warned off by almost everyone other than those in the pay of Murdoch, Cameron went ahead and took Coulson into Downing Street with him, and once there instigated policy which massively favoured News International.

Just as Cameron is defending the indefensible as Ed Miliband put it yesterday by refusing to grant a separate inquiry into Jeremy Hunt's dealings with News International over the BSkyB bid, using his culture secretary as a human shield lest all the attention turn towards him, so the Tories on the committee are effectively defending the indefensible to protect their boss. The real partisanship here was from those who should have known better, and it will be something they will come to regret.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012 

One rogue newspaper.

For years we had the one rogue reporter defence. Now, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch's second session at Leveson, we've been given the one rogue newspaper defence.

You see,
Keith never really liked the News of the World. It was only the first newspaper he bought in Britain, the one which essentially kick-started his global ambitions. He didn't have much contact with the editor, not even phoning them up every week. His real love, the Sun, he lavished with attention. If you want to know what he thinks, read its editorials. Secretly, he'd wanted to shut the Screws down and bring the Sun out seven days a week, something he has now done. Funny that.

As any number of ex-Screws staff have now said, this account is utter bollocks. Yes, it's true that Murdoch didn't pay as much attention to the Screws as he did the Sun, but the idea that he didn't phone the editor every week (something Piers Morgan for one disputes) or that he was somehow embarrassed by the Screws is nonsense. Why would he otherwise have picked Screws stories in his witness statement (PDF) as evidence of journalism by his papers in the public interest?

It's hardly surprising then that he knew absolutely nothing about what was going on at the paper. Or indeed, that he didn't pay attention to little matters like the Max Mosley privacy case. He didn't know about the Gordon Taylor settlement. Or basically, any of the allegations against the paper until it was too late. When the Milly Dowler hacking story finally blew everything apart, he panicked. Nevertheless, shutting the Screws down was the right decision.

Some of this, it should be stressed, is believable. During 2008 he was focused on taking over the Wall Street Journal. He probably doesn't read the full rulings against his papers, or at least until he has to prior to the grilling he's received over the last two days. The idea though that absolutely everything passed him by is laughable. It seems that neither James or dear Rebekah ever mentioned the troubles the Screws was having thanks to the continued digging of Nick Davies. If we were to believe every word of Rupert's evidence, both this time and last, then he had apparently never heard of Neville Thurlbeck, one of the chief reporters on the Screws for the best part of 20 years. At least James admitted that he didn't really read the tabloids he was in charge of, although you can't imagine that was because they were too vulgar for him.

There was then a cover-up. Naturally though, this didn't involve any of Rupert's nearest and dearest. Both James 'n' Rebekah were kept completely out of the loop. Why, despite Colin Myler being brought in as the new broom after the resignation of Andy Coulson, it seems that he and the rest of the staff just wanted to forget about all the unpleasantness involving Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. Those who under Coulson had been co-operating with the industrial scale phone hacking had of course wanted the air to be cleared, for all of this to come out, for executives at the paper to know what had been going, but they were stopped in their tracks by the dastardly Tom Crone, the lawyer and drinker extraordinare! Except of course Rupert couldn't come out and say his name and accuse him outright; he just ensured that his description of the man couldn't be mistaken for anyone else. As Crone later said, it just happens to be a coincidence that the two main people Murdoch principally blamed also happen to be the ones disputing the evidence given by his son.

In any case, the idea that James and Rebekah were out of the loop and misled is absurd. Back in 2009 when the Guardian exposed the settlement with Gordon Taylor, either could have said if they had indeed been unaware of the scale of what went on that they wanted no stone left unturned. Instead Brooks issued that infamous letter claiming that the Guardian "has substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public". It took until the end of 2010 before News Corporation finally realised the story wasn't going to go away and set up the Management and Standards Committee to look fully into what had gone on at both the Screws and the Sun. Rupert himself briefly forgot everything that had been drummed into him and went for the jugular when Robert Jay implied that the overall desire of executives had to been to "cover up, not to expose", to which he responded, quick as a flash with "[W]ell, people with minds like yours perhaps [might think that]".

For the last two days have been a performance, and an incredibly good one at that. Murdoch didn't set out to destroy this government, as some of us both thought and hoped that he would, but he did ensure that everyone he loathes and wants to settle a score with got what he thinks they deserve. The Guardian was pretty much left alone while the Telegraph, the Times's main rival, was repeatedly pasted. Everyone he thinks has either failed or turned on him received at best a slight and at worst a smear. Anything that might make him look as though he was really in the wrong he'd forgotten about, while all the stories ex-staff and others had written were just nonsense. He admitted he'd made mistakes, but only slight ones. He regretted he hadn't acted sooner, but what he'd always wanted to happen now has done. It would be a blot on his reputation for the rest of his life, but he can clearly live with that. What endures is the myth, unaltered by this appearance and if anything enhanced by it, that he's untouchable, even infallible. Thankfully, there's still plenty of time for that particular spell to be broken.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012 

The call of the Hunt.

Well, I think it's fair to say that was just ever so slightly disappointing.

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.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012 

Hell hath no fury.

And so the vengeance of the Murdochs begins. For those who, like me, imagined that the Leveson session with Murdoch junior would just be a re-hash of his repeated denials that he was ever told anything about any aspect of his job as executive chairman of News International, then I think it's fair to say that we've pleasantly surprised.

First though, the stuff we've already gone over umpteen times. The early stages were dominated by James's insistence that everyone had misinterpreted, misunderstood and misreported the emails (page 27 of his witness statement (PDF)) that looked as though they drop him in it, even though he hadn't read them at the time. You see, the contemporaneous note written by Julian Pike of Farrar & Co wasn't detailing a conversation that Colin Myler had with James at all; it was in fact what Myler had said and Pike was simply noting that Myler had met with Murdoch junior!


Documented in his witness statement is just how unquestioning he was of the reason for having to pay Gordon Taylor £350,000 in damages; he was "content" with what he says Myler and Tom Crone told him, and it was "appropriate" for him to rely on them to deal with it. They didn't tell him that this case didn't involve Clive Goodman, and he didn't ask; he didn't see the "for Neville" email, despite both Myler and Crone saying that they showed him it; he says Crone and Myler were "very keen" to settle yet he didn't inquire any deeper about why they were so desperate beyond the bare minimum that he says they told him. As much as you believe that James couldn't care less about t
he newspapers he was also supposedly in charge of, this hands-off, completely incurious approach just doesn't ring true. Regardless of the company you're running, when underlings come to you and says you've got to settle a legal action for a total sum of just less than a million including costs, the idea that you don't inquire, that you don't ask questions, that you don't read the whole of emails is just completely unbelievable.

Asked by Robert Jay whether he was in effect complicit or incompetent
, he responded that he had been given "repeated assurances" that hacking was in the past and that he only had enough information to settle the Taylor case. Which, as far as it goes, was pretty much admitting to the latter.

Except, as the rest of Murdoch's evidence showed, he simply can't be described as incompetent. For the most part his dropping of Jeremy Hunt into the mire was pitch perfect; it was only when expertly asked by Jay what he thought of Hunt's department's help with the bid for full control of BSkyB that he allowed himself a revealing laugh.

This then is the start of the new Murdoch offensive. Having realised that in the short-term there is no way they'll be able to take full control of Sky, the family and all it controls has decided to take the entire political class down, or at least attempt to. There wasn't just the 163 pages of emails between Frédéric Michel and James Murdoch showcasing the contact between News Corp and Jeremy Hunt's team, making a mockery of the idea that he was in any way operating, as he told the Commons and as Gus O'Donnell ruled, in the "quasi-judicial" manner required of him, there was the revelation that James had personally made his case for the deal going through to David Cameron just three days after Vince Cable had been removed from his role. Add in how Alex Salmond had also apparently said he would be lobbying Hunt to let the Sky deal through, in effective exchange for the continuing positive coverage he was receiving in the Scottish Sun, and the ruling parties north and south of the border are both having their below-the-counter dealings exposed.

Just how much the takeover of BSkyB by News Corp would have changed the game is shown by the name chosen for the project: Rubicon. Had it been crossed, News Corp's domination of the British media would have been complete. As Nick Davies writes, the Murdochs thought they had it all sown up. The Sun's decision to endorse the Conservatives was taken jointly by James, Rebekah Brooks and you suspect with rather less input from Dominic Mohan and Tom Newton Dunn. This was intimated to David Cameron weeks before the paper itself let its readers and the world know. For his part, Cameron had already made clear that if elected he would cut back Ofcom and do the same to the BBC, the pet hates of a certain James Murdoch as made clear in his MacTaggart lecture. Cameron may not have abolished Ofcom as he said would, but he has cut it back, while the licence fee has been frozen. The only problem that remained was that Vince Cable was in charge of the decision over the takeover, and he was minded to send it to the Competition Commission, at the very least delaying it for months. Then the Telegraph had the wizard idea of sending undercover journalists to MP's constituency surgeries, and the Tories had their excuse for handing the decision over to "cheerleader" Hunt.

Rupert Murdoch may well have never warmed to Cameron, but he was increasingly leaving the decisions to James, or being persuaded to give the Conservatives a try by the ever clubbable, networking Rebekah Brooks. Keith has always been an arrogant hypocrite, yet he wouldn't have got where he was if he wasn't a supreme manipulator, and he always has something extra subtle left in reserve if he needs it. He would never have barged into the offices of the Independent and ranted at Simon Kelner for running an incredibly benign advertising campaign stating that he wouldn't be the one deciding the result of the election. That was the absolute height of News International's chutzpah, believing that they were untouchable to the point of rubbing their opponents faces in it. James today said he and Brooks went on their adventure because he was enraged at how Kelner had done it despite receiving "of my family's hospitality for a number of years", something that you can only characterise as resembling the mafia's attitude towards respect and slight.

Tomorrow sees the real Godfather giving evidence, and David Cameron must surely be having a sleepless night.

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Friday, July 15, 2011 

The cancer remains.

So. Farewell then to Rebekah Brooks. When someone described by the Graun as a "ruthless, charming schmoozer", the kind of individual who previously considered prime ministers past and present to be friends is only paid tribute to by a couple of Murdochs and err, Giles Coren, you know there's been a very sudden sea change in attitudes to those at the top of the media pile.

Despite everything, we still don't really know why Keith was so intent on keeping dear Rebekah at the top of NI. It's true he feels a special affinity with those who have dragged themselves up from under-privileged backgrounds and share his love of newspapers, qualities which Kelvin MacKenzie and Andy Coulson both had in common with Brooks. It still doesn't explain though just how she came to be seen as being part of the extended family, or how someone on the surface so ill-suited to the job of chief executive came to helm his UK operations. Brooks, like most tabloid editors before her operated a policy in the newsroom of apparent friendliness combined with moments of fury and extended bawling out of those judged to have failed in some way, the latter of which it seems increased as she approached the end of her tenure. Inspiring fear in those you come across while chief exec simply doesn't work, nor does telling lies which can be easily found out, as she did when she claimed the Guardian had "likely deliberately misled the British public".

Last week the obvious thing to have done would have been to accept Brooks's resignation and keep the News of the World open, even if last Sunday's edition was to be an extended mea culpa with those involved in the cover up also falling on their swords. The Murdochs not only did the opposite, sacrificing a paper and loyal workers in a desperate attempt to save both Brooks and the BSkyB bid, Rupert then went on his bizarre walkabout at the weekend, saying to the press that his first priority was his flame-haired CEO. Even if propping up Brooks was a ploy to direct flak away from Murdoch junior, the very person who authorised the payment to Gordon Taylor in a failed attempt to hush up the spiralling scandal, then subsequent events and the failure to get a grip meant that her departure was an inevitability, later if not sooner.

Her resignation letter, decoded by the Graun, says it all. She says she feels a "deep sense of responsibility for the people we have hurt", yet only last week she was blaming a BBC-Guardian witch-hunt instead of her own failings for the closure of the Screws. Unlike the hacks left without a job, it's apparent that she'll remain on the NI payroll, although in what capacity it remains to be seen. Equally clear is that falling on her own sword now solves absolutely nothing: the attention has immediately shifted to James. The investigations now under way in America suggest it could soon move to KRM himself. After suggesting only "minor mistakes" had been made by News Corp, to then issue such a craven apology as will be published in newspapers tomorrow indicates that those who have never felt the need to say sorry before still don't genuinely mean it now. Brooks may be gone, but the cancer remains.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011 

A very Murdochian volte-face and the Wolfman.

It obviously hasn't quite sunk into the Murdochs yet just how far they've fallen, nor has it seemingly occurred to them that they could still go even lower. Their original letters to the culture committee, stating how they were sadly unavailable to give evidence next Tuesday were perfect examples of the excuses given by those who formerly felt or rather knew they were above such inconveniences as appearing before a group of jumped-up MPs to be asked daft, impertinent questions.

Their volte-face a few hours later, after being informed that they could be imprisoned (in the tower?) should they continue to have better things to do, an empty, clearly illegal threat if there ever was one, was as grudging as they come. Yes, we have found some space in our diaries, but don't think about asking us any actual questions (PDF), as then we may be forced to incriminate ourselves. As has been pointed out, no one has yet been charged with any actual offence as a result of Operation Weeting, so there's no possibility whatsoever of any eventual prosecutions being prejudiced or any issues being sub judice. Tuesday then threatens to be something of a let down, as reticence already seems to be the strategy the unholy trifecta of Murdoch, Murdoch junior and Brooks will pursue. It will at least make a difference to the previous one decided upon by NI executives and Screws hacks: what we now know to be lies and deliberate obfuscation.

Speaking of which, Murdoch's insistence to the Wall Street Journal that News Corp has only made "minor mistakes" in its handling of the debacle is just ever so slightly rose-tinted. Even assuming that he's not referring to News International's disastrous combination of procrastination and bullshitting when it came to phone hacking, if he'd bothered to take something approaching an interest back in 2009 then he still could have prevented having to abandon the bid for BSkyB by forcing NI to come clean, instead of it having to be forced out of them by a combination of the Guardian and the police.

NI is clearly grasping at any small mercies which come its way: tomorrow's Sun has on its front page the news that the Graun has apologised over claiming Brown's medical records were accessed by the paper directly. Instead it's accepted that a source provided the detail that Fraser had cystic fibrosis, although where he got the information from it's still not clear, nor does it even begin to make it acceptable that the Sun published the news in the first place, having threatened the Browns if they spoiled the "exclusive".

Not that the Metropolitan police are having a much better time of it. The news that the latest former NotW executive to be arrested, Neil "Wolfman" Wallis had been providing "strategic communications" (no, seriously) advice to the commissioner on a part-time basis may have come as a shock to Boris "codswallop" Johnson and Downing Street, yet his relationship with others within the Met has been known for some time. Private Eye reported in No. 1288 at the end of May that John Yates had been forced into admitting he had lunch with Wallis back in February, a meal Yates felt didn't need to be recorded in the Met's hospitality register as it was a "private engagement". The Eye speculated at the time that Wallis might be "quietly assisting" Inspector Knacker with their inquiries; if he was, then it was obviously decided that his help needed to be put on a more official footing. Still, as a "senior Met insider" told the Graun:

"The commissioner thought if the prime minister is happy employing Andy Coulson, and Neil Wallis has bid the lowest price, what reason would we have not to employ him?"

Yes, what possible reason? I don't know about you, but I'm coming up blank.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011 

Decline and fall.

Last December, some of you might remember that Vince Cable told a couple of Telegraph hacks posing as constituents that he was picking his fights in government carefully. Not only had he declared war on Mr Murdoch over the proposed News Corporation takeover of BSkyB, he thought "we are going to win".

I thought the opposite, as must have Cable himself as he was quickly defenestrated for his indiscretion. Indeed, I went so far as to write:

That, more than anything, is the real lesson from today's antics. You simply can't be in any variety of government and be against Murdoch, let alone threaten to go to war against him, especially if you favour not having your voicemail messages listened in to. This is exactly why we've had the miserable sight of both Ed Miliband and John Denham rushing out to condemn Cable, even as Labour gets chewed to pieces in the Sun, as they still believe that one day it'll be their turn to bask once again in the warm glow of Murdoch media support.

In fairness to myself, absolutely no one predicted or could have come close to imagining how quickly Murdoch and News International could have gone from being all conquering behemoths, with the power to strike down any politician foolish enough to suggest that what's good for them isn't necessarily good for the rest of the country, to the pariahs they've become over the course of ten staggering days. True, almost all the media barons of the past few decades have been brought low in some way or another, Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black most notoriously, yet Murdoch just seemed too strong, too imposing, too, to paraphrase a cliché, big to fall.

As the reporters have all stated, the withdrawal of the bid to swallow BSkyB whole is almost certainly the biggest setback of his entire business career. It's also come only a month after News Corp quietly sold MySpace for $35m, having paid $580 million for it back in 2005. The deal may have been shrewd then; now it looks as embarrassing as one of the blinged up, abandoned profiles on the site. Last Thursday he shut the Screws, a still profitable if tainted brand in a futile attempt to try and save the BSkyB, as well as the skin of his glamorous surrogate daughter. Previously politicians may have accepted that as a sacrifice enough, even considering the depths of criminality it seems the paper may have went to. Today parliament was unanimous, if after the fact, in demanding that the takeover be dropped in the public interest. The fear that Murdoch, his papers and editors both inspired and played with to their utmost advantage has gone. It will almost certainly return, but for once it's difficult to demure from the much reached for expression that it will never be quite the same again.

Certainly the spectacle of a previous prime minister of this country denouncing News International as a "criminal-media nexus" is something I never imagined that I'd see. Gordon Brown's speech was typical of him: self-serving, intensely party political, infuriating and also, much to the distress of some on the Tory benches desperate to finger Tom Baldwin as somehow being as equally culpable as Andy Coulson could well turn out to be, mostly bang on target. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have tried to stress that both sides were too close to the Murdochs, and both have said lessons will be learn, but Brown's setting out of the record of how while he was prime minister his government blocked News International and BSkyB's aggressive ambitions to expand was in contrast to Cameron's turning of all their concerns and grievances into prospective policies. It was certainly something of a coincidence that when setting out his bonfire of the quangos while in opposition the one he expressly chose to make an example of was Ofcom, the regulator at the time being raged against by NI.

It's also apparent that had Brown, against the advice of Gus O'Donnell and others set-up a judicial inquiry so close to the election that he and Labour as a whole would have been torn to pieces by the Tory press and the Conservatives themselves. Again, it's worth remembering how no newspaper other than the Guardian reported on the employment tribunal that found Matt Driscoll had been bullied by Andy Coulson, while the Sun had just denounced the report by the media committee on phone hacking, which had reached only moderately critical conclusions, as representing "a black day for parliament". It may well be right that if Brown had really wanted an inquiry he could have ordered one, as some have argued in response, but it's more than understandable that he decided it wasn't worth a further monstering from the tabloids. As he's said, the record will come out.

All of this somewhat distracted from the actual announcement of the judge-led, two-part inquiry. It does thankfully seem to be broad enough in scope to consider the entirety of Fleet Street's use of the "dark arts", and not just the dependence of the News of the World on them. Held under the Inquiries Act, Lord Justice Leveson will have the power to summon almost anyone he feels appropriate, with evidence potentially being given under oath. Leveson, incidentally, was described earlier in the year by the Sun as a "softie", a description they may well come to regret. Especially promising is that he'll be allowed to make recommendations on cross-media ownership, with the potential that the Communications Act of 2003 could be amended to put in more stringent rules on the percentage of the media one person or company can control, prohibiting Murdoch from being able to resubmit a bid for Sky without offloading his other interests.

One thing that shouldn't be forgotten is that as Simon Jenkins wrote this morning, it wasn't ultimately the police, politicians or celebrities bringing civil cases who exposed what had been going on at the News of the World; it was other journalists. The withdrawal of the bid for BSkyB wouldn't have happened without the outrage from the public and the reverse ferret of politicians, it's true, but ultimately this was the Guardian's victory. This is why the reform of press regulation and change in practices while needed, should not go too far. While there should be a record kept of meetings between editors and proprietors and politicians, it doesn't need to be extended beyond that, discouraging contact between senior officials and hacks which often provide the stories that hold governments to account as much as the Commons itself does.

Not many wars are won without a shot being fired. Even fewer are won by individuals that had no direct involvement whatsoever. Vince Cable despite first appearances won his battle. His and our victory ought to remind us that in politics anything is ultimately possible, with even the most intractable and immovable obstacles and individuals being subject to the same forces as everyone else. It might take a long time, but eventually every empire declines and then falls.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011 

Hoist by the Telegraph's petard.


Say hello to your new overlords, remarkably similar to the old ones.

When it comes to great examples of being hoist by your own petard, we now truly have one to overshadow all the others. The Telegraph couldn't possibly have known when it sent its undercover reporters out masquerading as constituents in an attempt to extract some juicy gossip with which to fill space in the run up to Christmas that Vince Cable would be indiscreet enough to boast that he had "declared war on Rupert Murdoch", yet it was still stupid enough to run parts of the surreptitiously recorded conversation instead of spiking the entire exercise. It was only too easy then for the strangely omitted part to be leaked to Robert Peston, and so with it went crashing down even the outside possibility that Cable might block News Corporation's bid to swallow BSkyB whole.

You do have give credit to Jeremy "Berkeley" Hunt, though. Just as there was never any chance of the deal being blocked by a Conservative government already as cosy with the Murdoch press as New Labour ever was, so it would be a blown raspberry too far to just wave the deal through. No, there had to be a sacrificial offering, even if it was so minute as to not even come close to appeasing the other media gods expressing their wrath at the potential of even more market share being clawed away. Hence Sky News, hardly the most cherished part of the satellite company from a Murdoch perspective, is to be sheared off and guaranteed almost exactly the same level of independence as the Times and Sunday Times were back in 1981 when the condition of their sale was the creation of a board of directors who were meant to have the ultimate say over the hiring and firing of editors. A year later Murdoch sacked Harry Evans without deigning to ask the board of their views on the matter. The one difference is that neither a Murdoch nor a News Corporation employee can sit as chairman, thereby guaranteeing the channel's complete impartiality for perpetuity.

It's nonsense of course, although as Steve Hewlett writes you can't help but admire its elegance. The new Sky News holding company will have the exact same shareholding as News Corp currently has in BSkyB, the same shareholding which ensures that the likes of the Sun treat the broadcaster as all but one of its own. In any event, even the most ardent Murdoch loathers, and that includes myself, would be hard pressed to claim that Sky News has ever been anything but independent from Keith, slightly right-of-centre general view of the country notwithstanding. Its impartiality has long been guaranteed by Ofcom and its predecessors, leaving the possibility of Murdoch turning it into a British version of Fox News moot. Not that there's anything to stop News Corp in 10 years time from dumping this new arrangement and starting from scratch - indeed, they've only agreed to licence the brand for 7 years with an opportunity for another 7 once those are up.

By then the media environment will have been transformed irrevocably, and Murdoch will be in all but dominant control. It's worth remembering that the BBC recently signed a deal which froze the licence fee at its current rate until 2016, ensuring that it will have to stretch itself ever more thinly in order to carry on doing just what it does now. No wonder then that the deal has so terrified the smaller players, who came together in an unprecedented coalition to push for the deal to be rejected. Today's announcement is essentially their worst nightmare come to life: the plurality test supposedly reached, there's nothing to stop News Corp from bundling together more and more of its products. Want the Sun or the Times along with your Sky television, telephone and broadband? Even if you don't, you'll probably end up getting it. Just as much as the newspaper industry has begun to start stripping out the bulk sales that have for so long distorted the figures, the spectre of a new version of the price wars of the 90s hovers back into view, just when they reach the point of not being able to afford to go through it all again. The Barclay brothers probably have deep enough pockets to ensure that the Telegraph can survive, but the Independent and Guardian, different target markets or not, would be put in even more trouble.

The perverse situation that has been reached is that the government has essentially decided that what's good for Rupert Murdoch is good for Britain. This might make more sense if Sky was actively investing in original programming and creative content for its channels, except as Mark Thompson pointed out it only spent a paltry £100m on new productions last year, while splashing the equivalent of the whole of ITV's programming budget on marketing. You can't have failed to notice the launch of Sky Atlantic, advertised absolutely everywhere incessantly, a channel that will show nothing but the best that err, America has to offer. The Sky Arts channels are the only high-brow investment that Murdoch has almost ever made, and they were originally an outside introduction. Everything else has resulted in a race to the bottom, one which has had the effect of coarsening the nation along with it.

Worst of all is that simply isn't a way back once Sky has been gobbled whole. Murdoch might be 80 and destined to meet the reaper before too long, but the power his empire will have over governments will continue regardless of who steps up afterwards. Unlike Silvio Berlusconi, none of the Murdoch clan appear to have political aspirations; they've learned how to get their way without seeking office themselves. By wielding an ever bigger market share, the ability of governments to operate without having first gained their approval will be even further diminished than it currently is. Already we've seen with the Metropolitan police's pitiful initial investigations into phone-hacking at the News of the World just how entrenched the reciprocal relationships between the main powers in the land have become, and with this deal they'll be even fewer places to turn to. Democracy, when it comes down to it, can be sold just as cheaply for short-term gain as everything else.

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