Murdoch bounces back
Rupert Murdoch appears to have the magic touch. Think back five years, when the octogenarian was forced to apologise to MPs for News Corp’s role in the phone hacking scandal; corporate charges loomed over the company from both sides of the Atlantic; Murdoch’s takeover of Sky was doomed; and News Corp was losing business.
How do you come back from that?
Some of Murdoch’s power comes from his papers, which have been used to endorse, beat up and sway politicians for decades. Many have helped him. Some, like Tony Blair, have become his friend.
But, like any large corporation, much of News Corp’s influence is built through everyday lobbying.
We got a glimpse of News Corp’s lobbying M.O. during the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking. It exposed in fine detail the – in Lord Leveson’s words – ‘formidable and relentless’ lobbying campaign unleashed by News Corp in a bid to overcome any political resistance to his takeover of BSkyB.
News Corp’s lobbyists used every trick in the book: they enlisted influential people to front the lobbying; reframed the deal as being in the national interest, warning that a refusal to approve the bid might jeopardise jobs; they nurtured close, social relationships with key officials, flattering them, schmoozing them with hospitality (Take That tickets...anyone?) and drawing them into a relationship of common cause. In the space of just over a year, News Corp’s chief lobbyist and the special adviser to the minister overseeing the bid process exchanged nearly 800 texts, sent over 150 emails and talked nearly 200 times on the phone.
All of this lobbying activity was solely concerned with engineering policy in News Corp’s interest.
It didn’t pay off at the time. But, now that the phone hacking scandal has receded, there are rumors that Murdoch is up for trying again in his bid to control Sky. He has been laying the groundwork: In the year to March 2015, News Corp execs met with government ministers, officials or advisers on ten separate occasions, eight of them attended by Murdoch personally. This is far more than any other media group.
This much we know from the logs of official meetings with media, which in the absence of a proper register of lobbyists, is the only accessible, public source of information. The aims of the meetings remain a mystery. The phone calls, emails and texts – probably hundreds of them, going on previous form – are entirely hidden.
Can we learn anything of News Corp’s lobbying from the government’s register of lobbyists? No. It isn’t on it. Not as a corporation, which are excluded from registering (not even as a client of a lobbying agency, which are required to sign up).
Only with a robust register, like the one being debated in the Lords on September 9th, would the public know who News Corp are meeting, what they are lobbying for, and how much money they are throwing at it.
Will anything be different this time round? Will News Corp be allowed to become the most powerful media group Britain has ever seen? Will Theresa May stand up to Murdoch? Don’t bet on it.