My mental model of the whole Murdoch/political complex, as I’ve said before, is that there have been two projects, The Project 1.0 and The Project 2.0. The first was the original use of “The Project” as Peter Mandelson introduced the phrase – the Blairite settlement, under which there was a transactional, bargaining relationship between the Labour Party and the News International hierarchy. People like Mandelson and Alistair Campbell achieved fame because they managed the terms of this relationship. The second, The Project 2.0, is the far closer and to my mind more dangerous relationship that developed between the Conservative Party, News International, and the Metropolitan Police in the late 2000s.
The differences are that in the Project 2.0, personnel from News International, for example Andy Coulson and Neil Wallis, were integrated into the structure of government, specifically the political/press management network radiating out from Downing Street in parallel to the operational/policy one radiating from the Treasury. Further, the principals understood the relationship in terms of one with common goals, common ideology, and a common culture. Nobody in the Labour Party ever imagined Rupert Murdoch was on their side.
Here’s Peter Mandelson.
Mandelson believes relations between government ministers and journalists are, in essence, a “trade”. Journalists want favourable access to news and ministers want good coverage of policies, he says.
Now here’s the famous text from Rebekah Brooks. Make your own mind up. I think it’s pretty clear what the aims of the Project 2.0 were – eliminate OFCOM as a force in affairs, damage the BBC as far as possible, convert Sky News into a Fox-like talking points channel. Jeremy Hunt and James Murdoch said as much at various junctures. This of course dovetails with other Conservative strategic initiatives like boundary changes, an anti-union party funding reform, and making it harder to get councils to run voter registration.
So you can see two broad strategies. One was to manage Murdoch tactically, hope the good times kept rolling, and redistribute City taxes via the national institutions like the NHS and the in-work benefits aspect of the Revenue, schoolsernospitals and the shadow welfare state being considered more respectable and Murdoch-compatible than wages. (Exercise: how often did the Sun mention wages and how often petrol prices?) Hopefully, voting Labour would be a habit, and erosion of the core vote would be compensated by floating voters gradually sticking to the shore.
The other was to integrate Murdoch fully into the core executive, pursue a strategy of re-engineering the electoral landscape, remove the countervailing institutions in the media. The police aspect is interesting – was the original point of the elected police commissioners plan to create electoral campaigns that the media could win for the Tories? In that case, why such emphasis on influencing the Met? Or was that a legacy that had to be dealt with?
Both of them seem to have gone bust. The Blairite one was undermined by the economic crisis and then finished off by the final collapse of the relationship. The Tory one has been knocked off course by the failure to get a proper win in 2010 and then holed by the great Murdoch crisis. Where are we going from here?