It’s the end of Murdocracy!” exclaimed Martin Bell to a nonplussed audience enjoying a river cruise before buying one of the former Tatton MP’s numerous books.
I’d gone along to renew acquaintances with one of the characters in the 1997 drama, “Neil Hamilton and the Brown Envelopes.”
But is he right? Have we seen the end of the extraordinary power of News International before whom politicians quaked?
After a summer when the media empire has tottered on its foundations, we now await the more considered proceedings of the inquiry under Lord Justice Brian Leveson into the ethics of the media.
I must break off to tell you one of the better jokes doing the rounds after Hackgate. The only time ethics were mentioned in the News of the World newsroom was when they were referring to a county to the east of London!
Boom! Boom! Now where was I? Oh yes, the Leveson inquiry. Now this judge is the right man for the job. Having prosecuted Rose West in one of the grimmest murder cases of the twentieth century, he’ll be hard to shock as a parade of hackers, blaggers, police on the take, and craven politicians come before him.
M’lud has a complex task, balancing the desire for a free press with the rights of citizens to privacy in their hour of distress. He’ll also be looking at the tricky area of the relations between the media, police and politicians.
He may recommend the creation of Ofpress, the end of the Press Complaints Commission and papers regulating themselves. I hope he proposes that apologies should be given equal prominence to initial defamatory articles. If that means five pages with banner headlines, so be it.
Papers hate apologising much more than paying fines and being able to print corrections on page one zillion and five. He may address our press ownership rules. After all, if Murdoch pulled out of UK papers, would the Arabs and Chinese be moving in?
However, after all the inquiries have been held and new laws passed, a few eternal verities will remain. There have always been powerful press barons – from Beaverbrook and Northcliffe to Cecil King and Rupert Murdoch. That won’t change, although they may have to exercise that infl uence much more via the web in the future.
There will always be contact between these barons and politicians seeking to influence them. There will always be links between journalists and the police, and there will always be the British public’s insatiable appetite for gossip and celebrity.
The idea that the euro will replace Eastenders as a topic of conversation at Sunday brunch is sadly fanciful.
The public did become engaged with this issue when the shocking revelations emerged about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone but a week later Jeremy Paxman struggled to rouse a studio audience to passion on the issue.
The media love discussing the media and we’ve had hours of special programmes with the revolving cast of usual suspects who all ply their trade within a mile of Big Ben, but the voters still think the economy, health and crime are the big issues.
So where has Hackgate left our politicians? I presume David Cameron picked Andy Coulson as his communications chief because he wanted an Alistair Campbell fi gure who could take on the tabloids. What he got was a man dogged by his past at the News of the World.
Cameron is practised at sensing when a trap is about to snap shut around him and doing something about it, like setting up the judicial inquiry. Trouble is, people might start to ask why he gets into these scrapes in the first place.
There has been a lot of rubbish spoken about this being the making of Ed Miliband. Once Murdoch became an easy target, the Labour leader did ride the wave of public opinion skilfully. But he’ll need to make a difference on bread and butter issues to win over the voters.
The Lib Dems never fawned at the court of the Mighty Murdoch and were either ignored or trashed by his papers as a result. They should get credit for their consistent warnings that News International was exercising too much influence in this country.