28 October 2007


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 October 2007

In the wake of the election that wasn’t, it seems a bit strange to congratulate Gordon Brown for not losing his bottle when it matters. But – so far – our boy is keeping his nerve on something more crucial.

All the indications are that there will not be a referendum on the European Union treaty that tidies up various institutional arrangements in the wake of enlargement. And that is cause for democrats to celebrate – because it means that Brown has decided to call Rupert Murdoch’s bluff.

Murdoch is Britain’s biggest press magnate, possibly the world’s biggest media magnate, and his anti-Europeanism is visceral. Last month he ordered his mass-market daily, the Sun, to start a campaign for a referendum on the EU treaty. The first blast came on the Monday of Labour’s conference. The paper ran a front-page montage of Brown’s head imposed on Winston Churchill’s body, with the composite figure sticking up two fingers to readers alongside the headline “Europe: never have so few decided so much for so many”.

It wasn’t the greatest tabloid splash – but the message was clear enough, and the Sun followed it with a week of populist anti-European invective mixed with heavy hints that it would back the Tories at election time. The next week was the Tories in Blackpool, which ended with the polls swinging in David Cameron’s favour. And the weekend after that Gordon met Rupert and announced that there wouldn’t be an election this autumn.

What future historians would give for the transcript of that Brown-Murdoch meeting. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t briefed. But hunch tells me that the key conversation went something like this. Murdoch: “I’ll back you in an early election if you promise a referendum on the treaty.” Brown: “Sorry, no deal.”

There are of course other scenarios that are easily imaginable. The most depressing is as above but with a different answer. Brown: “Thanks very much and I’ll do it when the time comes, but not right now because the polls have gone against us.” Or try this, which is maybe more realistic. Brown: “I’d go for it if the polls were OK, but you’re going to have to live with no referendum – because an election isn’t happening.”

Whatever, Brown’s statement this week on the EU negotiations makes me think my hunch is right, even if there are qualifications to Brown’s “no way”. He might not be particularly enthusiastic about the treaty, but he seems to have recognised that he has no alternative but to get it through parliament despite Murdoch’s opposition.

Now – if I’m right – this isn’t the first time a powerful media owner has been defied by a democratically elected British politician. A century ago, Lord Northcliffe, aka Alfred Harmsworth, the prototype press baron who had a portfolio of newspapers even bigger than Murdoch’s – at its peak his empire included not only the biggest-selling national daily, the Daily Mail, and the Times, but also the second-biggest-selling national daily, the Daily Mirror, and a whole lot more besides – was consistently at odds with the great reforming Liberal government elected in the landslide of 1906. But the government told him to get lost on pretty much everything, leaving Northcliffe fuming impotently on the sidelines until the first world war started to go horribly wrong.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the press barons of the day – Northcliffe’s brother Rothermere, a fascist-sympathising bean-counter who had inherited most of his brother’s papers, and Beaverbrook, the eccentric megalomaniac who ran the Daily Express – set up a political party to fight the Tories’ opposition to protectionism for the empire. It got nowhere and is remembered mainly for the jibe of the Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, that the press barons exercised “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

Labour and right-wing media moguls never used to get on, but for the past 13 years – since Tony Blair became leader – the party’s leading lights have consistently kow-towed to Murdoch in order to win his newspapers’ backing at election time. Precisely what has been conceded to him to win his favour is a matter for conjecture, but it’s safe to assume it has been quite a lot, if only in the field of media regulation.

Was it worth it? Well, Labour has won three elections in a row, which it had never done before. But whether that is down to the support of the Murdoch press is a moot point.

Now, however, the love-in seems to have come to an end – though what that means remains to be seen. My hope is that breaking with Murdoch on the Europe referendum will have a liberating effect on the government as Labour politicians realise they have a great deal more freedom for manoeuvre than they have assumed in recent years. But we shall see.