If there was a modern-day British version of the Faustian pact it would probably resemble the deal that the ruling party of the day (whether Labour or Conservative) does with Rupert Murdoch who owns some of the country’s most powerful media outlets including Sky TV, The Times, The Sunday Times, the News of the World and — most important of them all — the sensation-mongering Sun. As the country’s largest-selling newspaper which both reflects and presumes to shape white working class opinion it is seen by political parties as a useful ally to have while chasing “grassroots” votes.
In the run-up to every general election it has become a ritual for Labour and the Tories to try and outdo each other in courting the Sun — willing, Faust-like, to mortgage their soul to get its support. On the eve of 1997 elections, Tony Blair famously flew half way round the world to meet Mr. Murdoch to seek his blessings. And, lo and behold, within days the Sun was shining on him — switching support from the Tories to New Labour enabling the paper, later, to claim credit for the party’s landslide victory.
In return for its backing, Mr. Blair effectively hypothecated his government’s policies to the Murdoch press. Much of his Europe agenda, especially the decision to drop the election pledge of a referendum on joining the euro, was driven by his deal with Mr. Murdoch. The Sun’s signature was writ large on many of Mr. Blair’s domestic policies as well, notably his tough (and often) abusive rhetoric on immigration and Muslim extremism. It is widely believed that even the decision to invade Iraq was first cleared with Mr. Murdoch.
In addition, the Murdoch newspapers were pampered by feeding them with exclusive stories with the Sun memorably “scooping,” in 2004, the report of the Hutton inquiry into BBC’s allegation that Downing Street “sexed up” intelligence to justify invasion of Iraq. (The inquiry absolved the government of any wrongdoing and heavily criticised the BBC.) There was a joke at the time that if the Pope and the Sun’s then political editor Trevor Kavanagh were both waiting to see Mr. Blair, he would first ask for Mr. Kavanagh to be sent in!
Twelve years later, in the run-up to another crucial election, the Sun has done a 180-degree turn and switched its support back to the Tories after their leader David Cameron persistently wooed Mr. Murdoch. The ditching of Labour has been followed by a series of highly personal attacks on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, including cheap shots at his poor eyesight which has badly affected handwriting. Through much of last week, the Sun’s front-page was dominated by Mr. Brown’s “error-strewn” letter to the mother of a young soldier killed in Afghanistan. In the end, though, the attacks became so crude that the paper’s own loyal readers turned against it forcing it to admit that it misread the public mood.
Downing Street tried to play down a private telephone conversation between Mr. Brown and Mr. Murdoch over the row but, ironically, ended up confirming what one commentator described as the “successive [British] Prime Ministers’ …worst-kept dirty little secret” — namely that they keep in regular touch with Mr. Murdoch. Offering an unintended glimpse of Downing Street’s cosy relationship with the media magnate an official spokesman said: “He has regular communications with Rupert Murdoch… There is nothing unusual in the Prime Minister talking to Rupert Murdoch.”
Meanwhile, there is much speculation about what the Sun has been promised by Tories in return for its support. The Murdoch empire’s wish-list was publicly laid out in a widely discussed speech recently by Mr. Murdoch’s son James, Chairman and Chief Executive of his News Corporation. It included curbs on BBC’s expansion and licence fee (BBC, you see, is Sky’s main competitor); abolition of the media regular Ofcom; and a more friendly regime for pay channels such as Sky.
On all these counts, the Tories’ response has been “yes, yes, and yes” with Mr. Cameron promising to freeze the BBC’s licence fee, cut Ofcom down to size and abolish unnecessary regulation. Having been there and done it themselves, Labour ministers know what they are talking about when they talk of a “deal” between the Tories and the Sun.
Business Secretary Peter Mandelson who — with Mr. Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell — was instrumental in getting the Sun to back New Labour in 1997 must have had his party’s own experience in mind when he told BBC: “What the Sun can do for the Conservatives during the election is one part of the contract and, presumably, what the Conservatives can do for the News International (the Murdoch company which owns the Sun) if they are elected is the other side of the bargain.”
Critics say that politicians — too lazy to try and connect directly with the people — have allowed themselves to fall for the Sun’s grossly exaggerated claims about its influence on voters. They point out that in 1997, New Labour was in such a strong position that it would have won anyway, even if the Sun had opposed it. This time, too, the wind had been blowing in the Tories’ favour long before the Sun declared its support.
The fact is that it is the Sun which, sensing the public mood, has the habit of attaching itself to the potential winner. Perhaps it would have been easier to call its bluff had it not been part of the larger Murdoch media monopoly which has enough nuisance value to make life of any government difficult. And that’s the secret of the power of “Murdoch factor” in British politics.