Phone Hacking: Be careful what you wish for, our politicians will always need benefactors

Phone Hacking: Be careful what you wish for, our politicians will always need benefactors

So constant has the coverage of all things News International been in recent weeks that the words 'LATEST: PHONE HACKING' have burned on to the screen of the television in our office.

But as the frantic burst of claim and counter claim appears to have died down, we enter a period of reflection that promises to be long and uncomfortable for many.

The full scale of the Conservative's cosy relationship with the Murdoch Empire is now in the open. That George Osborne has met senior News International executives 16 times in just over a year simply boggles the mind. Even more surprising is Michael Gove. As Andy Burnham, the shadow education secretary, rather acidly pointed out, as Education Secretary Gove met Rebekah Brooks at least half a dozen times before "visiting a single sixth form college, further education college or special school."

It seems safe to assume such blurred priorities will become a thing of the past. But what seems to be getting conveniently forgotten is how such a situation came to being in the first place.

Some would have it that recent events will herald a new era of transparency and openness, much like the 'new politics' promised after the 2010 election. Since the outbreak of the scandal politicians of all stripes have rushed to proclaim the real influence of newspapers has long been exaggerated, and it is time to end decades of fawning to our various press barons. Rupert Murdoch doesn't decide elections, he simply backs winners, is the new mantra. These high-minded types point to contracting circulations as evidence of the declining clout of the print media, and urge fellow politicians to forge strictly formal relationships with journalists.

That is all very well, but it would be folly to pretend that the cosy media relationships so coveted by a whole generation of politicians had been of little tangible benefit to their purposes. TV may now be the most popular source of news in the UK, but unlike in the US, broadcasters are bound by strict rules of impartiality, making the newspapers the only popular medium in which our politicians can secure overtly positive coverage.

The unsettling reality is that politicians, greedy for powerful endorsements, are always likely to be in hoc to some form of vested interest; in the case of the UK, it is newspapers that can make or break careers. As Kevin Drum noted in Mother Jones recently: "File this under "watch what you wish for," I guess. In America, vast pools of money in politics give the business community enormous power to influence elections. That's bad. But the alternative, apparently, is to get the money out and instead give media moguls enormous power to influence elections. Pick your poison."

This is not an argument for American-style campaign funding, nor an excuse for those who have sucked up to News International for so long. It's simply a reminder that there will always be commercial forces at play in our politics.

Rather more worryingly, it is becoming increasingly likely that British politics is beginning to incorporate the worst of both worlds. While David Cameron occasionally uses it to poke fun at Ed Miliband during exchanges in the Commons, surprisingly little has been made of the fact that around 90 per cent of all Labour's funding now comes from trade unions. That is not quite as undemocratic as it sounds - union donations usually come from a political fund to which hundreds of thousands of members contribute. However, the revelation that the party has received just two private donations (the largest - of £10,000 - came from former spin doctor Alistair Campbell) since Miliband became leader is a sign of Labour's financial vulnerability.

The Conservatives face a similar danger. When David Cameron became leader in 2005 donations from the City accounted for around a quarter of all donations to the party; in 2010 it was over 50 per cent.

The phone-hacking scandal has unlocked the poisonous hold News International had on our politics for far too long, and may go on to fundamentally alter the way in which the print media operates. But a politics free of outside influence? That'll be the day.


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