The Media Reform Coalition has conducted analysis of the most recent lists of external meetings published by key government departments. The data show that the special access afforded to News Corporation executives has shown no signs of abatement in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry. Far more than any other media group, News Corporation executives met with government ministers, officials or advisers on ten separate occasions in the year leading up to the end of March 2015, eight of them attended by Rupert Murdoch himself (and that’s just the gatherings on official diary).
This follows a refusal by the Secretary of State for Culture last month to disclose what meetings he has had, if any, with Sky or News Corp executives since May of this year, in response to a Parliamentary question tabled by Paul Farrelly MP. Earlier in the year, the Cabinet Office also refused to release information it holds about controversial meetings between the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, and the Guardian newspaper in 2013, shortly after the paper published documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. According to Alan Rusbridger – editor of the Guardian at the time – the paper was explicitly threatened with a costly injunction if it did not comply with government demands to give up source material.
2015 was the year that saw Rupert Murdoch regain control after the fallout from the phone hacking scandal. A series of key decisions by officials on both sides of the Atlantic have gone his way. First, the US Department of Justice announced in February that it was dropping its investigation into News Corp. Aside from prosecution, this threatened the prospect of a license withdrawal for Fox News, one of Murdoch’s most lucrative as well as politically influential broadcasting assets.
Then in October, the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale announced that he was not “minded” to implement key incentive measures designed to encourage newspaper compliance with the new system of press regulation, as recommended by Lord Leveson, ratified by cross-party agreement, and enshrined in the 2012 Royal Charter on Self-regulation of the Press.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest boon of all, the CPS announced last month that it would not, after all, pursue corporate charges against News UK for phone hacking, to the dismay of victims and campaigners.
In the meantime the Murdochs have (according to an article in the Economist magazine) more than doubled their wealth since the phone hacking scandal erupted in 2011, . There have also been murmurs suggesting a renewed bid to consolidate their ownership of Sky TV may be imminent, having shelved a previous attempt amidst the phone hacking furore.
Whether all of this amounts to an ultimate ‘victory’ for Rupert Murdoch is a matter of opinion. Nor can we be certain that the positive outcomes were a result of calculated moves or the intense political lobbying that appears to be happening behind the scenes. But what it does suggest is that simply publishing ‘lists’ of meetings with media executives is unlikely to restore any degree of public faith after the rampant institutional corruption between media and public officials exposed during the Leveson hearings. What’s more, the data is published in an extremely haphazard and uncoordinated way with no consistent format, central database, or stipulated timescale. Such is the fog of transparency that continues to endure around the nexus of media and political power.