by a Newsnet Reporter
It’s the single biggest scandal to hit the UK establishment since the Profumo affair in the sixties. The phone hacking story has seen to the resignation of the Metropolitan Police Chief, the arrest of the Chief Executive of News International and the political hounds going off in search of the David Cameron ‘fox’ as they scent blood.
So salacious are the facts, so scandalous each revelation and so shocking the announcement of each arrest that journalists and pundits are quite rightly salivating over this feast. It’s the English equivalent of the Stephen Purcell affair – only these guys aren’t so reticent about going after the suspects.
Here in Scotland, the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial aside, there isn’t much overlap. Job losses at the Scottish News of the World were collateral damage from a scandal not of their making. This is a London story and it has revealed a dark underbelly of a world occupied by the movers and shakers of the ruling Westminster establishment and their media masters. Murdoch himself is beginning to look like ‘the fugitive’ as the FBI start to look into accusations state side.
Tory PM Cameron may well be in the firing line, but make no mistake, Murdoch’s connections to the heart of UK government involve senior Labour party figures as well. Meetings at Downing Street and private parties with News International executives were as much a part of the previous Labour administration as they were this current one. Brown and Blair were replaced on the News International VIP list by Eds Miliband and Balls.
It’s been going on for decades ever since newspaper proprietor Harold Harmsworth was asked for his paper’s support by Lloyd George for the forthcoming general election. Harmsworth agreed – on the condition that he became Viscount Rothermere and took a seat in the Cabinet. Harmsworth was the founder of the Mirror and the Daily Record.
But it isn’t just the print media and politicians who are facing questions, attention has also turned towards the good old BBC, or to be more precise one Robert Peston.
Viewers in Scotland will recall Mr Peston as the man who announced the impending collapse of the Bank of Scotland and who seemed to be in possession of information only minutes before it was publicly announced. It is even claimed that one infamous broadcast by Mr Peston caused a run on the bank as he broadcast information on trading ahead of the treasury’s own announcement.
Well Robert Peston has again managed to raise his profile by being in possession of breaking news of significant relevance relating to the phone hacking scandal.
Peston is known for having excellent contacts including two who are also close friends, Will Lewis and Simon Greenberg. Mr Lewis and Mr Greenberg also happen to be members of the new News International “Management and Standards Committee” and took part in confidential discussions between the company and Scotland Yard.
Tom Watson the Labour MP who has insisted that Tommy Sheridan’s conviction is unsound said: “Robert Peston is being spoon-fed the internal NI [News International] document handed over to the Met in chunks. They’re spinning their bad news. It’s not right.”
The Independent Newspaper reports that in December last year, Mr Peston hosted a private gathering at the BBC at which James Murdoch spoke of the company’s future plans. Mr Murdoch attended at the invitation of the BBC and addressed a select group of senior BBC figures on the subject of News Corp’s bid for total control of BskyB.
In the early part of the scandal Robert Peston’s broadcasts focused almost exclusively on Andy Coulson and concerns were raised that his revelations were being fed to him from within News International. Peston’s broadcasts had the effect of turning media attention onto Andy Coulson and gave respite to Rebekah Brooks who had faced questions over the hacking story.
On Saturday 2 July, Brooks was a guest at an all-night party hosted by Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and her husband, PR boss Matthew Freud at their Cotswolds mansion. Also present was the BBC director general Mark Thompson and Peston along with Peter Mandelson, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s brother, David, and the UK education secretary, Michael Gove.
The Monday following that weekend party the Guardian newspaper revealed the phone hacking allegations to the world.
So with pretty much the entire London based establishment including politicians, broadcasters, police and journalists all part of this intriguing Murdoch mix, one would think there was no need to try to invent another angle – the facts, sensational facts, were more than enough.
Well, think again. For last week up popped that mythical creature known as the ‘Scottish Labour Party’ with just such a cack handed attempt – the dastardly SNP, according to Labour, were in cahoots with Murdoch.
The signs that a smear was in the offing were there when BBC Scotland slipped a reference to the SNP having been backed by the Sun in the Scottish election campaign into an item on the phone hacking issue on The Politics Show of Sunday July 10th.
This was followed by an article in Monday’s Daily Record when political journalist Torcuil Crichton told us that: “Alex Salmond is coming under pressure to reveal his links to the Murdoch newspapers which backed him to become First Minister.”
The ‘pressure’ was being applied by Labour MSP Paul Martin who said: “I suspect Alex Salmond’s sudden and close relationship with News International explains his refusal to criticise the people who backed him so strongly last May.”
Torcuil went on to tell us that “The party provided an interview with SNP supporter Sir Sean Connery and increased their advertising spend in the Murdoch titles.”
What can you say about this? The Labour party, when in government, were known to spend significantly more taxpayer’s money on ads in the Daily Record than any other paper – note – taxpayer’s money not party money.
On Radio Scotland on Wednesday, the SNP’s Angus Robertson was interviewed by Gary Robertson who, yet again, failed to employ even the most basic courtesies when starting the interview. The interview introduction contained a basic error by claiming that the SNP had received the support of News International in the Scottish election. It then slowly became what appeared to be a transparent attempt at conflating a visit to Wapping by Alex Salmond with the real scandal engulfing the Murdoch Empire. To see the video on the BBC iplayer, click here (2 hours 8 mins 40 secs in).
This weekend Mr Martin issued another statement that said: “There are a lot of unanswered questions over the SNP’s links with News International. Throughout the entire phone hacking scandal Alex Salmond has ditched his usual megaphone diplomacy and has been uncharacteristically silent.”
The press release (all or in part) made it onto the pages of the Sunday Herald, Scotland on Sunday and the Sunday Mail, although it has to be said that the coverage was muted and one suspects that the editors were by then aware that the real story was Brooks, the Met and the Murdoch’s. Perhaps mindful that when a story as big as this really gets going then readers will see through a Scottish Labour smear attempt at twenty paces.
BBC Scotland’s online news managed a helpful photo of Alex Salmond shaking hands with Rupert Murdoch together with an enlarged image of a part of Martin’s press release statement. There are no business repercussions for BBC Scotland editorial decisions … and it sometimes shows.
As smears go though it was poor, not least because the real story was just too engrossing. However what it did demonstrate is that even with the most blatant piece of political manipulation by the Labour party in Scotland there is still a media willing and able to run with it.
In the meantime, the fallout continues unabated with the resignation of assistant commissioner John Yates. Apparently his conscience is clear.