I have an interview with Ed Miliband in the latest issue of The Spectator, conducted
the evening before yesterday’s Parliamentary debate on News Corp and BSkyB. Here’s the whole thing for CoffeeHousers:
Rupert Murdoch’s hold on British politics has finally been broken. The politicians who competed to court him are now scrapping to see who can distance themselves fastest. As the Labour
leader, Ed Miliband, says when we meet in his Commons office on Tuesday afternoon, ‘The spell has been broken this week and clearly it will never be the same again.’
Miliband and his staff have just heard that the government will support their motion calling for Murdoch to withdraw his bid for BSkyB. They are trying to contain their excitement, but their grins
give them away. The press secretary, normally a nervous-looking soul, is beaming from ear to ear.
Their strategy, hatched late on Monday night, seems to have worked. They gambled that after the revelations of the past few days, no political leader would wish to be seen as supporting Murdoch. So
if they used an Opposition Day debate to call a vote on the BSkyB bid, David Cameron would not dare to send MPs into the lobbies against it.
It all went according to plan: the Prime Minister is being left to play catch-up. The Labour leader sits on the sofa in the far corner of his office, leans back and, with a slightly bemused shake
of the head, says that if a week ago somebody had mooted the idea of such a motion passing with all-party support, ‘I don’t think you would have believed that was possible.’
And he believes that this will stop News Corp in its tracks. ‘If the House of Commons speaks with one voice I think even Murdoch will find it hard to resist.’ It is not, he stresses, a
personal feud. But he clearly has little admiration for Murdoch. ‘Nothing about what he has done or said, including his appearance with Rebekah Brooks, suggests that in any sense he has
grasped the magnitude of public anger and antipathy towards what he has done. In the end, large concentrations of power can lead to abuses of power — and I think that’s what has
happened in this case.’
His point is not so much about Murdoch owning a third of the newspapers bought in Britain, but about behaviour overall. ‘Where was these people’s sense of right and wrong? That’s
what I keep asking myself. These are newspapers that preach responsibility, they go on about benefit cheats and irresponsibility — and then they were doing this.’
He is, however, particularly scathing about Murdoch’s failure to apologise personally. ‘He has never had to do that because that’s not what he does. They haven’t realised
that the world has changed.’
This idea of the world having changed is central to what Miliband regards as the wider significance of this moment. In the 1980s, Murdoch’s newspapers were the great enemy of the Labour
party. He was the strike-breaker, the promoter of Thatcher, the nemesis of Neil Kinnock. This experience, and in particular the Sun’s savaging of Kinnock in 1992, led Peter Mandelson, Tony
Blair and even Gordon Brown to believe that courting Murdoch was crucial to winning power. But Miliband believes that this era is finally over.
As with many empires, the end might come quickly. Last week the Guardian revealed that a private detective hired by the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of Milly Dowler. Sensing his
moment, Miliband called for Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, to resign. It is a sign of how quickly things have changed that this then seemed risky. Several Labour MPs
thought it foolhardy to pick a fight with such a vast media conglomerate. Miliband acknowledges that he told his staff beforehand that ‘the relationship with News International wouldn’t
be the same again’. ‘We have got to be clear-eyed about that because I knew that wasn’t what [News International] wanted.’
He now says that Labour got its relationship with Murdoch’s media group wrong. ‘I take my share of responsibility as leader of the Labour party for the fact that [the change] was
overdue.’ He concedes that he ‘clearly should have said more, earlier’ about phone hacking. Why, if he is so uncomfortable about ‘this concentration of power’ did he
not take it on before? ‘It’s always hard to judge these moments because there’s always a worry in a politician’s mind. It’s not just about the relationships, there is
always a worry in your mind, does this look self-serving? Is this about my worries about Gordon Brown or John Prescott or whoever it is being hacked?’
Some of the shock from Labour figures looks odd now. I ask why, if Gordon Brown was so outraged at the Sun publishing details of his son’s medical condition, he tried to befriend Brooks, the
‘Their ability to take revenge was seen as significant,’ he says. ‘In the Labour party there is a particular history, you know, about 1992 and so on.’
But Miliband believes Murdoch’s power had faded even by the Blair era. ‘We’d have won the election without the Sun in 1997.’
To Miliband, this desperate desire for the Sun’s endorsement was New Labour’s great sin. It left the party ‘too fearful of speaking out, particularly on issues like media
regulation or the way the Press Complaints Commission worked’. And when the Sun stopped shining on Labour, party leaders still couldn’t move on these media issues: ‘If we did
that, it will look like it’s just sour grapes because these people backed us before.’
Miliband argues that, precisely because of the power the press has had over politicians, the coming public inquiry into phone hacking should be as broad as possible. But who should give evidence to
this Truth and Reconciliation Commission? I ask if former prime ministers should be summoned. ‘Former, and current,’ he replies. Blair and Brown, as well as John Major?
This is, of course, a winning issue for Miliband: it converts his perceived weaknesses into strengths. Unlike his brother David, he never had many friends in the media, and never really sought to
acquire any. When I asked him if he was courted by the Murdochs, he laughs and says, ‘I haven’t noticed!’ The closest he got was discussing climate change with James Murdoch. But
that and the odd drinks party — including last month’s News International bash in London — were about as far as his ties with them went. It was never, he says, ‘a sweetheart
relationship’. The Times and the Sunday Times both supported his brother for the Labour leadership, and both have been sharply critical of him.
Miliband argues that Cameron ‘allowed himself to get too close’ to News International and that explains his ‘terrible mistake’ in hiring Andy Coulson. When I put it to him
that he may have a comparable problem in his strategy director Tom Baldwin, who played a key role in the Times’s controversial investigation of Lord Ashcroft, he is dismissive. ‘Tom did
not commission an illegal private investigation on Lord Ashcroft. It is a total throwing around of mud.’ With frustration in his voice, he declares that this is ‘a total smokescreen and
so far from being the issue’.
Interestingly, he fears that the Prime Minister, having been too close to newspapers, will now go too far in the other direction — ending the independence of the British press by pushing for
statutory regulation. Miliband says that his instincts ‘continue to be for self-regulation of the press’.
This position might be sincere but it is also strategic. It guarantees him a hearing among journalists keen to see off the threat of a new regulator. He is clear that ‘this isn’t a
crusade against the press’.
There’s undoubtedly something different about Miliband now: more swagger, more conviction. His adept handling of this crisis and his successful parliamentary gamble have shaken the confidence
of the Tories. Being the first party leader to take on Murdoch and threaten to win is no mean feat. But can he keep it up? He wonders if this current drama will turn out to be just ‘a couple
of weeks when the world looks like it has turned upside down and then the world goes back to normal and everybody is like, what was all that fuss about?’
If that is the case, then the high point of his leadership passed with the Murdoch vote on Wednesday. But if the world has changed, then Miliband’s fortunes have turned.