How I introduced David Cameron to Andy Coulson

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 9 May 2012 in Diary
Former News of the World political journalist Ian Kirby explains the inner workings of the Murdoch empire's political influence

Almost seven years ago, I introduced David Cameron to Andy Coulson. None of us knew then, as we bonded over crab cakes at Christopher’s Restaurant just off the Strand, what the real consequences of that meeting would be.

A simple lunch was the first stage in an extended mating ritual that would ultimately lead the fresh-faced Tory leader into the Chipping Norton set, and the clutches of News International. For Andy, it was an introduction that would later take him from the wilderness after his departure from the News of the World, into Downing Street, and back into the wilderness again.

Much has been written about the dynastic mating ritual between Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants and David Cameron and his. Millions more will appear after the prime minister gives evidence to the Leveson Inquiry later this month.

It is a courtship game that has been played out for decades – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have all invited Mr Murdoch to visit Downing Street, via the back door of course. It is worth noting that the only one who ever asked him what he wanted was Gordon Brown.

However, most of those analysts miss the point of these meetings – some very public, many very secretive.

Those who believe News International is ultimately a criminal organization, the sort of multi-billion pound empire that exists in a James Bond film, see these meetings as proof of the pernicious control that Rupert Murdoch seeks to exercise over British politicians of every party.

The emails exposed by the Leveson Inquiry between Fred Michel and Adam Smith are final pieces in a jigsaw that was started 17 years ago, when Tony Blair flew thousands of miles to deliver a speech to News Corporation executives meeting on a far flung tropical island.

In fact, Rupert Murdoch has had a pretty poor deal out of successive prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher allowed him to buy The Times and the Sunday Times.

Tony Blair blocked his bid to buy Manchester United, refused to hold a referendum on the EU and tried to take Britain into the euro. David Cameron’s government thwarted the Sky buyout. Government pressure finally forced the Metropolitan Police to take a proper look at phone hacking.

So, why did he bother? Why was Rebekah Brooks in almost daily text contact with the PM? According to that ever-so reliable witness Oliver Letwin, Rebekah demanded weekly meetings with senior members of “her” government.

Simple. It’s about power, and projecting power.

Just as the US military projects power by sending an aircraft carrier towards North Korea every now and again, News International reminds its rivals that it sells one in three of the newspapers bought in Britain this morning by being seen, regularly, with the prime minister of the day and his senior Ministers.

For the government of the day, the meetings allowed them to believe they were getting their message across to Britain’s biggest newspapers, or softening the kicking they were receiving on a daily basis.

I was the political editor of the News of the World for almost 13 years and saw these courtship rituals at first hand many times. My team benefited from time to time with some good scoops, but on the whole, those meetings were not for our benefit.

I remember one day at a Conservative Party conference a couple of years ago, just after the general election I think. We breakfasted with David Cameron, lunched William Hague, and had drinks with George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Oliver Letwin and Andrew Lansley before dining with Michael Gove.

At the end of the day my deputy and I looked ruefully at our notebooks. Over 15 hours we had schmoozed the PM, the Chancellor, the foreign secretary, three other cabinet ministers and the bloke who was supposed to have his finger on the pulse of the coalition hovernment. And the only vaguely decent story we found all day came from a quick chat in a corridor with David Davis!

After the Leveson Inquiry has ended, those courtship rituals may begin again, but I suspect they will be very different, much more limited and even less effective that they were.

One of the most interesting gems to come from Rupert Murdoch’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry was the fact that only a minority of Sun readers voted Conservative at the last election. Kevin Maguire may be depressed to note that a quarter of Mirror readers voted Tory in 2010!

In fact, the new generation of politicians has very different priorities about how they choose to communicate, and whom they choose to communicate with.

Some, such as Dominic Raab and Dan Hodges, have used newspaper columns to very good effect over the past year or so.

But for many new MPs, their media landscape is very different. Magazines allow them to project an image successfully (Louise Mensch, Sayeeda Warsi, Chuka Umunna etc). Radio and rolling TV news give them a high profile. Blogs and Twitter allow them to refer to these appearances and reach an audience that is now bigger than many newspapers., and do it on their own terms

Tom Watson and Louise Mensch have over 150,000 Twitter followers between them. In March, the Independent claimed it sold little over 100,000 copies a day.

In fact, up to a fifth of those newspapers may have been pushed under hotel doors or given away free.

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee as a whole will soon have more Twitter followers than The Guardian has readers.

Newspapers will still be of vital importance to politicians. They have shaped MPs' perceptions of each other, exposed their flaws and, occasionally, celebrated their successes. It is clear that Eric Joyce would not have been able to project himself as a vulnerable, penitent, near-alcoholic without the help of a handful of newspaper interviews.

But the new generation of MPs regard dealing with newspapers as a gamble that is only occasionally worth taking. Tom Watson used his blog, Facebook and Twitter to prosecute his war against the Murdochs. Newspapers were only used when he needed a proper writer, journalist Martin Hickman, to help him with his book, Dial M for Murdoch.

None of this means, as many bloggers believe, that the days of the so-called Dead Tree Press are numbered. The fact is that most print journalists are far better at sniffing out a story, standing it up, and writing it than their largely amateur on-line rivals.

Also, as digital media continues to endlessly fragment and diversify, people look to newspapers, in print and online, as their most reliable and effectively organized medium to consume news.

But the new generation of politicians will regard newspapers as a tool, not as an ally. And that means there will be no more flights to tropical islands. It also means, sadly, there will be fewer delicious lunches in Christopher's.

Ian Kirby is the former Assistant Editor (Politics) at the News of the World

Tags: BSkyB, David Cameron, News International, Phone hacking, Rupert Murdoch, Tom Watson

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