Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Mandelson has accused the British newspapers of feeling they are “above the law”, arguing that it is “politically suicidal” for any prime minister to consider taking them on.
In an afternoon at the Leveson Inquiry in which he lamented a “loss of deference” in society, Mandelson compared the press to Britain’s trades unions in feeling “untouchable” and wanting to “operate above the law”. He wrote in his witness statement:
Like the trades unions, when you try to apply the law, they shout from the rooftops about basic freedoms and fundamental rights. (…) Perhaps, because of all that has now happened and been revealed about the invasions of privacy, law-breaking and deceptions, the time for the press has also finally arrived. But it will take a brave government and I would not bank on their nerve holding.
Mandelson, one of the key architects of New Labour, lamented what he termed the “tabloidisation” of the British press, suggesting News International titles and others had “pioneered” a shift from “conventional news to a pre-occupation with celebrity, scandal, gossip and sexual revelation”.
“There are barely any broadsheets left, figuratively or literally,” he said, adding later that he felt the country would be “better off” if newspapers “spent more time looking into corporate misbehaviour and general wrongdoing rather than celebrity tittle tattle and gossip”.
He also expressed fears over the challenges presented by digital media. “Media business models are being ransacked, governments are losing control of the information flow and the public are being given access to a flood of undigested and unmediated ‘news’, all in the name of free speech,” he wrote.
He stressed a need to maintain standards in the press. ”The media has to be challenging,” he said,”but it seems that every journalist wants to turn themselves into a [Bob] Woodward or a [Carl] Bernstein. They have to accept that sometimes people haven’t done wrong.”
Mandelson spoke out in favour of a body enforcing higher standards, but argued that corporate governance and transparency were equally important. “Just in the case of banks, you need regulation, but for banks to uphold proper standards they need better people running them,” he said.
He advocated independent, statute-backed regulation controlled by neither the press nor the government, disagreeing with Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion that it might be seen as infringing free speech.
Elsewhere in his three hours of evidence, Mandelson described his time in dealing with the press in the run up to the 1992 elections and Labour’s takeover of power in 1997, when the Murdoch-owned Sun famously switched its previous Conservative party allegiance.
He compared dealing with media in the 1980s as “like living in a jungle, engaging in almost daily hand to hand combat with people who never seemed prepared to give you a break”, and described Labour’s relations with press around 1992 elections as “pretty dire” due to their antagonism with the party.
Ahead of the 1992 elections, Mandelson said, “we didn’t want to make permanent enemies of News International”, as the party tried to forge a friendlier relationship with the publisher.
However he was firm in rejecting the view that “some sort of Faustian pact” had been struck between the Murdoch-owned group and Labour at the time of the Sun supporting the party ahead of its 1997 landslide win.
On his dictum of press-politicians relations, which the Inquiry is currently examining, Mandelson said: “You can be friendly with journalists, but journalists are never your friends.”
The Inquiry continues tomorrow.
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