By Dr Matthew Ashton
Another week, another boatload of revelations from the Leveson Inquiry about the links between News International and the government. Ignoring the fact that everyone who appears before Leveson has terrible memories; clear evidence was presented that there seems to have been a blurring of the important distinction between friendship and business at the highest levels.
To a certain extent the public have always believed that this country is run by a social and economic elite who exist in a exclusive circle. This will just reinforce that impression, further damaging what remains of their trust in the democratic process. The main problem for Labour is that its very hard for them to fully capitalize on this, as for every example of one-to-one meetings with the Conservatives, there are at least two examples of the same thing happening with their own politicians.
While no one would deny the importance of the press talking to people in government, it's clear that this can not continue in the present manner. I'm not sure how anyone from News International can honestly expect the public to believe that they had little or no interest in influencing policy. Listening to the testimony you'd assume that their only mission in life was to act for the benefit of their readers with no commercial interests in mind whatsoever. Murdoch and the other media moguls might deny their power but this isn't supported by the evidence. Take 1997 for instance. Blair was always going to win that election, however it was embarrassing how far out of his way he went to court the Murdoch press. He should have let them back the Conservative's to see to what extent their claim that 'it was the Sun wot won it' actually held water.
You can't stop people in politics and the media being friends, therefore it looks like other measures will have to be taken. Two possible solutions spring to mind. One is complete transparency that's properly enforced. So far all governments have been notably lacklustre when it comes to this, with meetings either not being recorded or being vague on the details on where and when they happened and what was discussed. Politicians have argued that they are entitled to a social life and conversations they have at private events are none of the public's business.
As it appears that government policy has been talked about at private events it looks like even greater transparency is required. This would involve full and complete disclosure of every meeting, no matter how incidental. Any failure to comply with this should be dealt with harshly. Politicians would moan and complain that they'd have to do more paperwork to keep track of even small talk, however I'd argue that we require details of even the most minor claim they make on expenses. The same rules should apply here.
The second measure that could be taken is having a serious look at media regulation in terms of how much of the media any one person of business could own. While it seems clear that the freedom of the press should not be abridged, there no longer appears to be quite such a convincing argument for huge corporations and billionaires owning quite so much of it. How you measure media ownership is a complex process at the best of times, but reducing the amount of the press in the hands of the few would help reduce their influence over government. Otherwise big companies will continue to buy smaller companies until the concept of media plurality becomes essentially meaningless.
Governments need to take a much more forceful stand on this issue as well as well as re-examining what constitutes a fit a proper owner. If they don't then they'll continually have to bow and scrape to the media giants.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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