In (partial) defence of Labour’s so-called ‘Lay Off Murdoch’ instruction to party’s MPs

by Stephen Tall on July 10, 2011

‘Lay off Murdoch’ — that was the ever-so-quotable paraphrase that the New Statesman used to accompany this article by Dan Hodges, revealing how the Labour Party press team had issued a circular ‘to all shadow cabinet teams warns Labour spokespeople to avoid linking hacking with the BSkyB bid, to accept ministerial assurances that meetings with Rupert Murdoch are not influencing that process, and to ensure that complaints about tapping are made in a personal, not shadow ministerial, capacity.’

In reality, Labour’s communications chief Tom Baldwin — yes, himself a former Murdoch employee — did not use the phrase, ‘Lay off Murdoch’. But, then, Jim Callaghan didn’t utter the line ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ either, so all’s fair in love-and-phwoar journalism, I guess.

However, I think it is worth reproducing in full what the memo did say:

From: xxxx | Sent: 27 January 2011 To: xxxx
Subject: Important: Phone hacking

Dear all,

Tom Baldwin has requested that any front bench spokespeople use the following line when questioned on phone hacking.

BSkyB bid and phone tapping
These issues should not be linked. One is a competition issue, the other an allegation of criminal activity.

On BSkyB, we have been consistent in calling for fair play. We believe ministers should conduct themselves properly in what is a quasi-judicial process. We said Vince Cable showed he was incapable of behaving fairly towards News Corp. We have since raised questions about whether Jeremy Hunt can be fully impartial given his record of past statements. We do believe the bid should be referred to the Competition Commission and think Hunt should get on with it. Downing Street says that Cameron’s dinners with Murdoch will not affect Hunt’s judgement. We have to take them at their word.

On phone hacking, we believe the police should thoroughly investigate all allegations. But this is not just an issue about News International. Almost every media organisation in the country may end up becoming embroiled in these allegations. This goes to the root of a wider problem in public life. MPs are taking a hard look at themselves in the mirror over expenses. It is time the media did so too over the way it conducts itself.

Frontbench spokespeople who want to talk about their personal experiences of being tapped should make it clear they are doing just that – speaking from personal experience.

We must guard against anything which appears to be attacking a particular newspaper group out of spite.

Thanks,

xxxx

Labour Party Press Office

One line stands out which partially justifies the ‘Lay off Murdoch’ interpretation, and that’s the surprisingly indulgent assumption of innocence that the close-knit connectedness of the upper Tory echelons and News International executives ‘will not affect Hunt’s judgement’. ‘We have to take them at their word,’ says Mr Baldwin, which sounds like the summing-up of a 1950s judge rather than the hard-nosed spin-adviser to HM’s Official Opposition.

One other line is absent from the memo: any suggestion that the ‘fit and proper person’ test should be invoked when determining whether News International should be permitted to takeover BSkyB. Given how assiduous was Tom Baldwin in pursuing Lord Ashcroft, including allegedly hacking the Tory peer’s bank account, this is a surprising lacuna.

However, for the rest of the memo it seems to me like fair comment. Indeed, I’d go further. The memo places the issues surrounding the hacking scandal in their proper context. There is a real danger that the focus on News International (and its senior executives Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton) is distracting from the wider issues this episode poses for journalism, the police and politics.

Just as News International’s claim that the hacking was the sole responsibility of a couple of rogue reporters has proved to be risible, so is the idea that the practices exposed in the past week are restricted only to the Murdoch empire.

The Spectator published a telling graph a couple of days highlighting which newspaper groups had been implicated by the Information Commissioner most often in paying for private information. News International came third, with the Mirror Group and Associated Press, publishers of the Mail stable, leading the way. The extent of their coverage of the hacking scandal was a mirror image of their complicity.

I’ll shed no tears for the loss of the News of the World. But what would be a tragedy is if News International’s sacrifice of its biggest-selling newspaper allows other publishing groups to brush off the serious accusations levelled also against them. Our politicians, regardless of party, should ensure all media organisations and journalists are held to account without fear or favour, and face equal treatment in front of the law. Anything that smacks of spite will be sure to backfire.