Murdochs: how can two communication leaders be such poor communicators?

Tom Watson was a better questioner than some
Tom Watson was a better questioner than some

Having myself been subject to select committee interrogation amid a media firestorm, I developed a low opinion of the format. During the David Kelly affair the Foreign Affairs Committee, under a Labour toady chairman, Donald Anderson (since rewarded with a peerage), allowed itself to become Alastair Campbell’s tool in attempting to hound David and discredit my story. The questioning was low-grade, unfocused and grandstanding. Typically, they would suggest some phrase they had dreamed up to get a soundbite on the news and invite you to agree with it.

Today, however, the questioning is much better – mostly sensible and specific. And what has been striking has been the poor performance of those being questioned. Rupert Murdoch’s hesitations, and his clear (and probably genuine) difficulties of recall must mark the final end of his authority. James has been better, but still not terribly clear. What strikes me is how two men at the helm of one of the world’s greatest communication empires can be such poor communicators.

Ken Livingstone gets duffed up again over links with Murdoch

ken at sun 1There are three polls out tonight which show that Labour is not getting all that much of a boost from the phone-hacking scandal, and has indeed gone down in two out of the three.

ICM for the Guardian has the Tories (37%, no change) in the lead for the first time since March (Labour is on 36%, down 3.) In Populus, Labour has a 5-point lead (39%, down 1) over the Tories (34%, down 5.) YouGov’s weekday series shows Labour on 42%, unchanged and the Tories on 37%, up 1. The main beneficiaries in two of the three polls appear to be the Lib Dems.

What this suggests to me is that voters recognise that, for all Labour’s superior attack, both main parties were snuggled equally deep beneath the duvet with Murdoch and only the Lib Dems emerge with much credit. It’s a lesson that was – once again – thumped home to poor old Ken Livingstone on Monday’s Newsnight.

There Ken got another medium-sized roughing-up for his blatantly opportunistic attempts to blame Boris Johnson for all the evils of Murdoch, even though he was mayor at the time of the hacking and his own links with the Dirty Digger are far, far closer. (My pictures, courtesy of the former Sun journalist Ilana Fox, show the Kenster posing in the paper’s offices at Wapping in his incarnation as a Sun columnist, for which services he personally trousered thousands of  pounds. As Ms Fox says, “being a hypocrite never looked so desperate.”)

ken at sun 2

Not a single paper, not even the Guardian, has taken up Ken’s attacks – with the obvious and inevitable exception of Livingstone’s personal echo, Dave Hill. I thought the days when journalists were in powerful men’s pockets had just come to an end, Dave!

Here’s how it went for Ken on Newsnight.

Gavin Esler: Ken Livingstone, when you were mayor, why didn’t you see some of this coming?

Ken Livingstone: There was no evidence of it. This arises from the Guardian’s expose in 2009.

Esler: But there was closeness between Met Police officers and people at the News of the World going way back to when you were mayor.

Ken: Actually, it looks like going back for many decades. But that actually wasn’t ever an issue, it wasn’t raised. Unlike the current mayor, I did a press conference every week. No-one from the BBC, or the Guardian, or anyone else, came along and said, there’s more to this than meets the eye. What we saw was hacking into the Royal Family, and then in 2007 the people guilty went to prison. At that stage, no-one came to me and said, we think there’s more to this. Had they done so, I would have made certain that it was investigated.

Esler: But wasn’t your relationship with News International too cosy? You wrote columns for The Sun, there’s nothing wrong with that but you did do it, you must have been reasonably close. You also spent £350,000 on a PR company run by Matthew Freud, who’s married to Elisabeth Murdoch!

Ken: We looked for a marketing company to establish offices for London in India and China. They were the most successful bid. I think –

Esler: They just happened to be connected to the Murdoch family.

Ken: The simple fact here you can’t get away from. Rupert Murdoch phoned the four editors of his papers in Britain just before the last mayoral election to make certain they were endorsing Boris Johnson. I think I must be doing something right if Rupert Murdoch bothers to intervene. I think –

Esler: But you found that you had to use, out of all the PR companies on Planet Earth, you had to use one connected to the Murdoch family.

Ken: It was a very good one. And we got £21m of investment from China in the first year after he opened those offices.

PS: Little-known fact about Matthew Freud’s “most successful bid:” according to PR Week magazine, none of the normal roster of PR agencies used by the GLA (the Forster Company, Fishburn Hedges, GCI, Good Relations, QBO Bell Pottinger and Trimedia Communications) was even allowed to pitch for the China deal.

Ken Livingstone looks on as Tories try to make him a public joke

One of the risks for Ken Livingstone, lacking as he is in self-awareness, is that he becomes a figure of fun. The old boy’s dogged determination to stick it to Boris Johnson for his links to Murdoch – even though Ken himself had far closer links – gave the Tories an open goal at Wednesday’s Mayoral question time in the London Assembly.

With Ken looking on from the gallery, this was supposed to be the moment when Labour finally nailed the evil Johnson regime. Instead, after a serious 20 minutes about the awfulness of News International’s behaviour, it became a double-act between Boris and the Tory assembly members at the expense of that much-loved vaudeville turn, K.Livingstone Esq.

Andrew Boff (Tory AM): I think it’s very important to ensure that the mayoralty cannot be compromised by undue influence. Bearing in mind when [the hacking] took place [during Ken’s term of office], can I ask the mayor to look into the meetings the previous Mayor had with News International?

Boris (grinning broadly): Is this the guy who’s been popping up attacking me for having meetings with journalists?

Boff (innocently): Oh, I wasn’t aware – did he comment?… Could you also, Mr Mayor, look into any contracts that may have been entered into with the Murdoch dynasty?

Boris (mock surprise): Contracts? Involving taxpayers’ money?

Boff: Yes, contracts with the Murdoch dynasty, with Freud Communications [owned by Murdoch’s son-in-law].

Boris (mock incredulity): You’re joking!… I think it would be unbelievable and monstrously hyprocritical, would it not, if the previous Mayor, having broken bread with the hirelings and the leaders of Rupert Murdoch’s group, were then to attack any other person for doing so…wouldn’t it be an unbelievably opportunistic thing to do?

Boff: I think, I’m not sure, that the contract includes a jolly to China that the previous Mayor took.

Boris: Was GLA taxpayers’ money being paid to the Murdoch dynasty?

Boff: I think it was, Mr Mayor.

Boris: That’s unbelievable. What, you mean the thing I terminated as soon as I got in? I think you’ve opened a very fruitful avenue of enquiry! (Laughter)

Labour’s Len Duvall pointed out that what he called “Fraud Communications” was not part of News International. But then in came Dick Tracey on Ken’s relationship with NI itself.

Tracey: Talking about boot-licking News International, do you know there have been 26 bylined articles in NI newspapers since the hacking scandal broke in July 2009? The byline, Mr Mayor, is Ken Livingstone.

Boris (putting on serious expression): You’re joking. I sincerely hope no payment was received! It would be unbelievable, would it not, if cash actually went from agencies of the Murdoch empire into [Ken’s] pockets. Do you think that can have happened?

Ken Livingstone and Rupert Murdoch: it really was love

Ken’s attempts to make political capital out of Boris Johnson’s supposed “links” to the evil Murdoch empire are starting to look ridiculous as further evidence emerges that his links to News International were far closer than Boris’s have ever been.

I pointed out last week that Ken has twice had spells as a paid columnist for that great flagship of Murdochian progressive values, The Sun: the second spell came months after the hacking scandal had  well and truly broken. But I forgot to mention that, after his defeat in 2008, he also had a regular column in Murdoch’s unmourned featherweight freesheet, the London Paper.

While he was still Mayor, Ken loved the London Paper, because it was (a) not the hated Evening Standard and (b) never did any actual journalism about him (or anything else.) In the small gaps between items about Amy Winehouse it did, however, run regular pat-ball interviews with Ken and was duly rewarded with vast amounts of advertising by the mayor’s agencies, mostly Transport for London. Some days TfL had three full-page ads in the paper; it seems likely that it only stayed afloat as long as it did through massive injections of City Hall (ie our) money. Just over a year after Ken lost his job, it went the way of the News of the World.

On that sad day, Ken’s chief of staff and campaign manager, Simon Fletcher – by far his closest and longest-serving aide – described Murdoch and his paper as “a good thing for London.” He was undoubtedly a good thing for Ken – but despite what all too many of Livingstone’s supporters think, Ken and London are not quite the same.

One of Ken’s attacks on Boris was that he had had (horrors!) a number of meals with James Murdoch and other News International executives. The brazen hypocrisy of this charge has now been exposed by the Spectator’s David Blackburn, who has gone back through City Hall records to reveal that Ken… had meals with James Murdoch. And the editor of the London Paper, Stefano Hatfield. And attended Rupert’s summer party. And paid Murdoch’s son-in-law, Matthew Freud, £350,000 a year for PR, despite having his own massive in-house PR department (this contract was cancelled by Boris, to Freud’s fury – more about that, perhaps, at a later date.)

As I’ve said before, political claims don’t have to be true – but they do have to be credible. Ken’s claim to be a hammer of Murdoch is about as credible as his claim to be a foe of the bankers, or a holder-down of Tube fares.

Ken Livingstone's memory loss continues over hacking

Ken has been trying terribly hard in the last few days to associate those war criminals at City Hall with the News of the World hacking scandal, storming that “a better Mayor would have pursued the facts and pressed the police harder.” It’s certainly true that Boris Johnson’s response to the allegations in September 2010 doesn’t look so good now.

At the time, Boris said: “Unless there are significant new facts brought into the public domain that change the police case and make necessary a fresh look at it, I don’t propose to change my view.” He called the allegations “codswallop cooked up by the Labour Party.”

Since last year, of course, significant new facts have emerged – above all last week’s shocking revelations about the phone-hacking of a murder victim – and Boris has dramatically changed his view. He says he knew nothing of those facts when he made his “codswallop” statement.

This is, as it happens, the exact same defence deployed by the man who was mayor at the time when the hacking actually happened, and when a NotW journalist, Clive Goodman, was jailed for it – yet also did nothing to “pursue the facts and press the police harder.” Now what was the name of that mayor again? Oh yes, Ken Livingstone!

Here’s what Ken had to say to the BBC’s Tim Donovan yesterday when he was asked about it. He believed, he admits, that the hacking was “a one-off” and “assumed that it was just this [the Goodman] case.”

Note that Ken describes the hacking issue when he was mayor as an “operational” one he couldn’t interfere in. Only once an attack needs to be made on Boris does the same behaviour become a sickening lapse of judgment.

But the specific “operational” aspect of the issue – the criminal investigation into Goodman – ended with his jailing in January 2007, more than a year before Ken left office.

And note also the careful phrasing of Ken’s first answer – “the Commissioner never brought to me any issue relating to any current case that was proceeding” – which seems to leave a fair amount of wriggle room. Did the Commissioner, in fact, brief Ken about the wider issue? Or did someone brief him about the case when it was over? Or did someone other than the Commissioner brief him? And could Ken’s long-standing links with News International have played a part in his decision to keep quiet?

As with TfL fares and several other issues, Ken’s own record seriously weakens what could have been an effective attack. It’s another reason why Labour would have done better to get a newer candidate without quite so much baggage.

Tim Donovan interview, Sunday 10 July

KEN: The Commissioner never brought to me any issue relating to any current case that was proceeding, and I don’t think it would be right to do so. The first time I knew there was something really bad here was about a year ago, when a Guardian journalist told me there was much more to come out.

Q: Hang on. Hacking by a newspaper of royalty and celebrities? Did you ask, did you speak to the Commissioner at the time, and ask him, how far does this go?

KEN: No, no. Because we thought that’s all it was. I assumed that it was just this case, it was –

Q: You just assumed? You didn’t ask, even though a Sunday newspaper reporter is jailed? You never asked him, you never wanted assurances?

KEN: No. Because we were told that’s where it went.

Q: You were told? Told by whom?

KEN: That’s what was in the media, that this was a one-off, and I think a lot of us believed that. I’d always thought that my phone was bugged by MI5, not journalists.

Q: Wait a minute, did you believe it was just a rogue reporter at the time and it wouldn’t have gone any further? Did you not want to ask questions?

KEN: As I said, I challenged the head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller. I said you’ve been bugging my phone for years. She denied it, I didn’t believe that.

Q: This is about royalty, so you didn’t ask, you didn’t want to have any assurances from them at all, on your watch?

KEN: The mayor has no operational control over the Met. Where I was unhappy about things I would raise them, about the conduct of police at a public demonstration and so on. But there’s a clear dividing line. I think it was only about a year ago, when the Guardian was telling anyone who wanted to listen that there was a real big problem here, that this then took on – that’s the point I would have asked.

Q: But as we’ve now established, if someone, if a mayor, or senior figure in the Met Police Authority at the time had bothered to say how far does this go, what else should we be looking at, that’s not interfering in operational matters.

KEN: If any journalist had come to me and said, there’s a lot here that’s been covered up, I would have asked the police. But nobody did. And that’s the problem.

Ken Livingstone memory suffers from Sun-stroke

I always love Ken’s attempts to blame Boris Johnson for absolutely everything that’s gone wrong in the world, from global warming to the death of Shergar. Now, game as ever, the old boy is trying to drag City Hall’s despised blond gauleiter into the News of the World hacking affair.

In the last 48 hours, the Kenster has issued no fewer than three press releases excoriating Boris over the hacking story. He’s even been down to the pavement outside Scotland Yard to record a special denuciation video, available at the evocative URL of codswallop.

“Boris Johnson had at least two meals with Rebekah Brooks, one dinner and one lunch with James Murdoch, and one dinner with Rupert Murdoch,” stormed Ken in one release. It was, he said, a sign of his “dire judgment…the full extent of his relationship with News International and how much the phone-hacking story was discussed between them must be revealed.”

Senior politician has meals with News International executives – surely unprecedented, and not something, of course, that any Labour politician has ever done? And though the Met, of course, failed shamefully in the hacking probe, isn’t its investigation of specific crimes an operational matter of the kind that Boris has no jurisdiction over – and has in the past been fiercely attacked for interfering in?

The other problem, alas, is that Ken has forgotten to “reveal the full extent” of his “relationship with News International.” Let us take, for instance, this heart-warming column from The Sun on 19 February last year – seven months after The Guardian first broke the hacking scandal.

“You used to be able to go to the cinema without taking out a second mortgage,” said a certain man-of-the-people columnist. “Last week I took my two smallest kids to the cinema in London and had to shell out £23 just for the three of us to get in.” True, only too true. There was a showbiz par (“Four years ago I had the good luck to work with Girls Aloud in Shanghai”), a policing item (“Trevor Kavanagh was right to damn bent cop Ali Dizaei in Monday’s Sun”)  and even some political analysis about guess who (“the only people Boris has put himself out for are the bankers.”)

This particular celebrity, according to the Factiva database, has had no fewer than 26 bylined articles in News International newspapers since the hacking scandal broke in July 2009. In the autumn and winter of 2009/10, he was a regular standby columnist, appearing every few weeks. In the 1990s, he was an even more regular columnist for The Sun.

This celebrity has, in short, taken much more from Rupert Murdoch than a couple of free lunches – more than enough to pay for a few cinema tickets, no doubt. In 2008, he was even given space in The Sun to defend himself against the “frame-up” of a certain Lee Jasper.

The name of this celebrity columnist? Ken Livingstone. Would that, I wonder, be the Ken Livingstone who condemns Boris Johnson for having a relationship with News International, or a totally different one?

PS: More Ken Sun columns in the days ahead. These gems of popular journalism should not be denied a wider audience.