Sunday, July 31, 2011

the giant squid meets the criminal octopus as the last Tory sings his swan song

Peter Oborne's piece on post-Murdoch Britain is interesting, although mostly for the sheer otherness of his thinking. He's at least got the good sense or moral minima required to end up on the right side of the debate, but he gets there through some truly odd reasoning. Can anyone remember even one instance when any of the News International outlets ever ran an editorial arguing that a republican form of government was desirable? But he ascribes "a powerful republican agenda" to Rupert Murdoch.

I'd argue that Murdoch has a powerful Republican agenda, as in the American political party, but not a republican one. The only newspaper that professes republicanism is the Guardian, or perhaps the Andersonstown News, which isn't the same kind of republicanism and is interested in a different republic. The only way I can get sense out of it is to assume that he's talking about Australia, which seems a bit of a distant concern. Further, David Miliband knows Polly Toynbee socially, and we're asked to believe that this is worth mentioning in the same breath as the whole Murdoch system of government, as he describes it. Also, he seems to think Michael Gove, Eurabia-pushing ex-News International executive, is still a credible cabinet minister.

It's like reading a leader written by a giant squid. It's intelligence. But not as we know it.

Of course, he's right that what has been revealed is a system, a sort of parallel government. One thing Oborne is extremely unlikely to ever say is that there was a qualitative shift in the late 2000s in how it worked, although I think he's vaguely aware of it.

Labour leaders in the 1990s reacted to the power of the Murdoch system by trying to accommodate themselves to it. This is as good a way as any to define "The Project" - an effort to accommodate the party to the realities of the Murdoch system and to manage a transactional, bargaining relationship with it. The key figures in this effort - Peter Mandelson, Jonathan Powell, and Alistair Campbell - prided themselves precisely on their ability to manage the relationship, to negotiate a degree of freedom of action. The terms of business between NI and Labour can easily be criticised - would a Martian journalist dropped on a street corner between 1997 and 2007 have noticed that the Sun supposedly "supported Labour"? I think not. The paper didn't actually call for a vote against, but it did pour abuse on Labour ministers, opposed basically all its policies except invading Iraq, and offered the Tories a sympathetic hearing.

By the end of the Blair era, this relationship was strained - the original breakdown might be traced to Iraq, in fact, and the exit of Alistair Campbell from No.10. In fact, what was under way was more fundamental than that. We might call it The Project 2.0.

This would involve the Conservatives rather than Labour, and critically would go much further than the original Project. Rather than a transactional, bargaining relationship with the Tories, mediated by powerful media managers belonging to the party, the Project 2.0 foresaw something very different. Whereas Alistair Campbell's role was as "Emily" Blair's bulldog, guarding the gate at the interface between the prime minister's office and the press, alternately wagging and barking as seemed expedient, this new project would integrate News International's men into the machinery of government.

Part of the legacy the original Project was the enlarged status of the government's press officers at every level. In fact, it is unfair to blame this on New Labour. It is a great strategic trend that has been going for many years. Sir Bernard Ingham is not, I think, remembered for presenting an even-handed account of the Thatcher government's record or acting with total equanimity towards critics and sycophants alike. Sir Gerald Kaufman, Joe Haines, Philip De Zueleuta - they all served their prime ministers in the dark art of propaganda and earned a reputation of sinister efficiency and great influence. Arguably, this goes all the way back to Lloyd George's secretariat. Labour's innovation was to bring in outsider professionals, and much else was up to the force of personality of those involved.

Another important trend was their integration with the core executive, the hard centre of the state centred around the prime minister, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the intelligence services, and the Ministry of Defence. At the top level, these strands all wind together in the prime minister's office (which, I notice, has grown a domain name,, recently). As a result, the prime minister's official spokesman now has a sort of parallel management-information system that runs into the departments via their press officers, in much the same way the Treasury's MIS extends into the departments through the system of public-service agreements. The two phenomena are quite closely linked, in fact - departments' priorities are fixed through the comprehensive spending round and the PSAs, with reference to the political/press strategy defined on the PMOS's network. Then, their success or failure is monitored via the Treasury reporting system and the No.10 policy unit, and the political response to it coordinated through the PMOS net.

One Blairite contribution to this which is unique was its militarisation. The Blair years turned out to be ones of war, and the emerging press-management network was heavily used in support of the wars, with the result that intelligence was increasingly redistributed from the intelligence-administrative complex into the press-political management system. At the same time, the military's public affairs function was integrated into the system, with a common line for the civilian and uniformed spokesmen. Alistair Campbell's invention of the Coalition Information Centre (a still under-reported creation) gave this an international dimension.

The Project 2.0 consists, then, of reversing the process. Rather than the politicians selecting press managers to control the interfaces between the political management network and the media, News International selected them and made recommendations to politicians, who incorporated them into key locations in the system - the very top at No.10, the Metropolitan Police, ACPO, and to be frank, who knows where else? We know that George Osborne recommended Andy Coulson to David Cameron, and that Rebekah Brooks thinks she recommended him to Osborne. Dick Fedorcio claims he can't remember who recommended Neil Wallis to him, but he did admit that the motivation was to influence No.10 Downing Street, rather than to influence the press. (And who reckons Tom Watson wouldn't have asked him if Brooks made the recommendation if he didn't know the answer?)

Where Campbell bargained with NI and Mandelson cooperated with them, the situation in May, 2010 was more like Field-Marshal Montgomery's remark that "I banned all talk of Army Co-Operation. There were not two plans, Army and Air, but one, Army-Air. When you are one entity you cannot cooperate."

Now, Oborne is as I said, sort of aware of all this. A few weeks ago he surfaced the fact that there is an identifiable Murdoch caucus in the Tory Party, around George Osborne and Michael Gove, opposed to a Telegraph one. It is common knowledge that David Cameron's first priority as Tory leader was to short-circuit the party's internal procedures in order to flush in a lot more new candidates, the so-called A-list. One wonders if the list was pre-approved. And there seems to be an identifiable historical break point - when Michael Howard ran for prime minister in 2005, he brought in a pretty ugly character to run a pretty ugly campaign, Lynton Crosby, but at least he appears to have picked him himself.

My final question, then - with the dilution of the Tory Party with new candidates, and the integration of Murdoch's political officers into key nodes, does David Cameron actually exist politically? Is he, y'know, a thing? What fuckery is this?


Anonymous said...

Seems pretty close to the ball, but remember to doubt the newness of newness:

Chris Williams

Anonymous said...

Indeed: the CIC. A self-proclaimed propaganda outfit, part of the UK government but mainly controlled by the US government.


Laban said...

Murdoch's republicanism is visceral.

He accepts that the Royal family sell lots of papers, but he's never got over not being knighted for his tremendous contribution to British journalism aka tremendous damage to British culture.

Somewhere there's still a chippy young Aussie who's made oodles of cash, got lots of power - and those stuffed shirts won't give him a sniff of their farts.

He hates them, just not in the insane way of an al-Fayed.

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