So Tony Blair ended up in a white suit on the banks of the river Jordan – hallelujah! – as god father to Rupert Murdoch’s youngest child – while the BBC suffered its biggest confrontation with government ever and its chairman and director general, both figures from inside Blair’s big tent were forced to quit by Lord Hutton’s inquiry , out- manoeuvred by Blair and Campbell desperately seeking a diversion from disaster in Iraq. That’s rough justice and political showbiz for you.
The BBC has always acted as a whipping boy for the politicians or the written press in trouble – too big, too successful – and exposed since Hutton as frankly not half as independent as the commercial press. Will Leveson change that? Ought he to try to bring public and private sector media regulation into greater alignment? The consensus including him is no. But you can depend upon it when the next licence fee round starts all over again, the squeeze will be on the BBC once more – all about value for money and public service accountability you understand, nothing to do with its supposed independence. On the week of Cameron and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s appearance at Leveson are we seeing diversionary tactics against the BBC again?
Ben Brogan of the Telegraph claims Downing St had a point when the Cameron’s media chief Craig Oliver delivered a mild bollocking to BBC political correspondent Norman Smith – unwittingly before the cameras and posted first by Guido when removed from YouTube (since restored but which I can’t upload ” for security reasons”). Brogan endorses similar complaints made by Guto Harri, Boris’s PR man and old university friend who is about to go to – guess where? – News International as comms director. The web being woven is all the more incestuous because the current protagonists are BBC people past and present, not from the tabloids.
So what are all these supposed Guardian- style angles the BBC is adopting? We haven’t been told. The truth of the matter is that the whole media, the Telegraph and the Mail as much as the Guardian and the Mirror are picking up the aggressive positioning going on inside the coalition, as they are bound to do. How touchingly hopeful it was of BBC Political editor Nick Robinson to claim during the rose garden honeymoon that the birth of a coalition mean that “split” stories were now impossible. For about five minutes.
Tony Blair’s appearance at Leveson shows how little has changed in politics – media relationships whether or not Rupert Murdoch’s decades of influence are finally over. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that attempts to show that a Faustian pact existed between British Prime Ministers and Murdoch are doomed to failure. For one thing, only if an insider were obligingly to fire a smoking gun at the Leveson inquiry would that happen – and why should they? For another Leveson’s brief focuses on the press not the politicians and on the published evidence; they have no investigative resources. Although he grinds a Daily Mail axe, veteran press commentator Stephen Glover is surely right:
Much as I admire Lord Justice Leveson and the sardonic Robert Jay, QC, who asks most of the questions, I am afraid that either as a result of ignorance or excessive indulgence, their interrogation of the former prime minister was terribly lame. He was not put on the spot over many issues where he certainly has a case to answer….
So it was with some disbelief, and a very heavy heart, that I heard Lord Justice Leveson at the end of the proceedings invite an eager Tony Blair to come back with his best ideas for the proper regulation of the Press.
How he must have blessed the innocent judge! The thought of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell determining how newspapers should behave takes us into hitherto uncharted realms of madness.
Politicians as we know are about as quasi-judicial as Dr Crippen.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London