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Media pundit Peter Preston: Rupert Murdoch, the Leveson Inquiry and ‘wilful divisiveness’

By Hamish Mackay

May 8, 2012 | 4 min read

Media pundit Peter Preston claims there is more than a little “wilful divisiveness” about the crisis surrounding the Rupert Murdoch media empire and the Leveson Inquiry into press standards

In his weekly media column in The Observer , the former editor of The Guardian asks: “Wilfully blind? Wilfully ignorant? A wilful, heedless old tycoon who can't be fit and proper enough to run a whelk stall?

“There's no doubting the weight of select committee ordure dumped over the swizz family Murdoch last week. Nor is there any excuse for the corporate cover-up, as relentlessly detailed. But wonder a little about wilful divisiveness, too.

“Of course News International, in various modes, misled Tom Watson [Labour MP] and erstwhile friends ‘about the true nature and extent of the internal investigations’ by being – well! – ‘not fully truthful’.

“Of course, lying to select committees is serious stuff, just like setting private eyes hacking away or bribing cops. Yet this whole story isn't remotely over either. Operations Weeting and Elveden are still in full, arresting swing. So how can you reach fit and proper conclusions if you examine only some of the truth involving some of the players? “

This is a problem for Leveson, and for the Whittingdale/Watson inquiry, too, claims Preston, because without Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and more giving full testimony on things that matter, rather than peripheral political areas, …”there are big holes where complete understanding ought to be. You can see that something grotesque happened – but not how, why, or what in particular.

“Take one example. Les Hinton, James Murdoch's predecessor as master of Wapping and dad Rupert's most faithful servant, is fingered here as misleader-in-chief (while the Murdochs themselves aren't quite hammered that far).

“But Les, whose job it was to know difficult things, must have dug for truth once Clive Goodman was jailed. He hired Colin Myler as editor to clear up Andy Coulson's mess at the News of the World.

“Didn't he warn New York of impending disaster? Didn't he alert Rupert or do anything to save the beloved son? None of it – the way Myler turned, the way James was minced – makes human sense, maybe because the people who could explain have mouths zipped courtesy of the attorney general.

“And maybe that doesn't matter if the name of the inquiry game is harrying the Murdochs to destruction. But that game, with committee members almost wilfully divided on political lines, seems cause to pause and fret.

“LJ Leveson, pondering regulation of Britain's press, appears enthused by the ‘statutory framework’ pioneered in Ireland: a voluntary system, an ombudsman, a press council, and recognition under the defamation act so it's easier to fight public interest libel cases in court.

“All pretty appetising – except that, as the twinkly ombudsman in question said last week, the Irish justice minister can scrap these supposed privileges if he doesn't like what the press council does, and pull a draconian privacy bill from his top drawer. Anyone fancy the ultimate privacy of a few months in prison?

“It's the sword of O'Damocles and it doesn't begin to work in a bitterly hostile political arena. If politicians want part of the action, they can't be, or appear to be, fundamentally political: try headline parody once Labour deputy chairman's report sets Labour leader demanding that former Labour adviser, now at Ofcom, exact retribution from the Murdochs.

“Here's a toxic brew we would all come to regret – the still darker flip side of what's alleged about Jeremy Hunt. If parliament is to have even a watching brief, it has to tread carefully and consensually.

“If ministers are keen on slathering Richard Desmond in carrot soup, they (and we) have to be careful that next time, under a different government and different imperatives, they aren't creating a stick to beat (say) Evgeny Lebedev{ owner of The Independent].

“In any lengthy saga, it is always tempting to declare premature closure and produce the "lessons" you first thought of. But this isn't, and shouldn't be, about party manoeuvres. There was arrant criminality here. Trials first, fit punishments second – proper conclusions after.”


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