Does The Sun Shine in Scotland?

Why on earth would Rupert Murdoch and his henchmen and women be interested in Scotland? So runs one line of argument, which downplays News International’s political interests in Scotland. But evidence that they are interested in Scotland is to be found in the record of their activities. Holyrood is not Westminster, and does not have the power to regulate the broadcast media. Nevertheless, New International is active in Scotland as can be seen from the record of meetings with successive First Ministers, not to mention the leading role of the Murdoch empire in the destruction of the Scottish Socialist Party – a matter of no little import.

Technical gremlins got to Newsnight Scotland the evening they unearthed the footage of Murdoch chaperoned by Alex Salmond around the News International printing plant at Eurocentral just outside Glasgow. The footage has still not been seen on the BBC but it shows that the SNP is not immune to the largesse of Newscorp. At the beginning of August copies of correspondence with News International were released under the Freedom of Information Act. These revealed Salmond “had written several times to Rupert Murdoch in recent years to invite the News Corp chief executive to events in both the US and Scotland”. The press highlighted Salmond’s reverential language in phrases such as“as ever I found your views insightful and stimulating”.

The record of the meetings told a story of courtship culminating in the Scottish Sun backing the SNP in the 2010 election. As the Record reported:

“In January, Salmond met James Murdoch in London. Shortly after, Scottish editions of the Murdoch newspapers began running pro-SNP stories. The party provided an interview with SNP supporter Sir Sean Connery and increased their advertising spend in the Murdoch titles. The Sun then delivered a ringing endorsement of Salmond on election day, in sharp contrast to the image of an SNP noose around Scotland in the 2007 campaign.”

News Corp is happy to splash largesse and political support on any party if it is in their interests. It does not matter if the Party in question is a bitter critic.

Naturally the Labour Party was quick to denounce the SNP and its closeness to big business and to the villain of the hour. Paul Martin Labour’s business manager in Scotland claimed that Salmond:

“would clearly rather we all ignored the fact that he personally met with James Murdoch, wined and dined the editor of the Scottish News of the World and provided free articles and advertising to News International newspapers worth thousands of pounds.”

Given the obsequious nature of Tony Blair’s relations with Murdoch and indeed the continued chummy relations between the Labour front bench and the legions of Murdoch, Salmond didn’t have too much trouble batting the accusation away: A spokesperson said:

“Labour’s hypocrisy is breathtaking, given that practically their entire leadership attended Rupert Murdoch’s summer party in London last month, downing champagne and oysters with Rebekah Brooks. The meeting with James Murdoch was in early January and was to discuss jobs and business opportunities in Scotland – they are after all one of Scotland’s biggest private sector employers.”

The SNP also highlighted previously released data on the meetings between Jack McConnell and News International. Still this is more a case of pots and kettles rather than an effective rebuttal.

What this shows though is that the Murdoch press is keen to be close to all political parties that who might be able to gain them advantages or potentially harm their interests. As has been widely remarked News Corp is happy to splash largesse and political support on any party if it is in their interests. And that is the key word: interests. It does not matter if the Party in question is a bitter critic, there can be circumstances where collaboration is seen as a lesser evil if it helps to bury its enemies. Thus although the SSP leadership is on the record consistently as opposing News International, it is clear that Bob Bird and others in News International felt that destroying Tommy Sheridan was more important than collaborating with an anti-capitalist party like the SSP. We need not accept all of Tommy’s defence case or even have any time for what the SSP and others have called the ‘cult’ of Tommy Sheridan to note the tactical decision by News International to use (‘work with’ might be to neutral a phrase here) – his enemies in the SSP.

The investigation announced into phone hacking in Scotland is also to investigate whether perjury was committed by witnesses at the Tommy Sheridan trial, most obviously by Andy Coulson, Bob Bird and other News International personnel. Let’s remember that as well as phone hacking, Sheridan also found a bug planted in his car – which suggests that phone-hacking and perjury may not be the only way that offences have been committed. The phone hacking investigation is also looking into other criminal behaviour by News International “in respect of persons resident in Scotland”. This obviously includes those involved in the Sheridan trial and perhaps also interference with Gordon Brown’s communications and maybe others.

While we might not have the evidence to divine intentions, we can certainly establish the outlines of practice. Unsurprisingly the Murdoch empire acts consistently and ruthlessly in its own interests. Some suggest that this amounts to no more than that it likes to back winners. This can be read in at least a couple of ways. The first is that News Corp is a fragile entity dependent on the goodwill of the political elite and desperate to curry favour. It is certainly true that News Corp expends significant efforts in currying favour, through the traditional methods of politically acceptable forms of bribery (otherwise known as offering jobs, money and gifts to decision-makers) and by lobbying. Given neither the Scottish nor Westminster Parliaments currently have lobbying disclosure legislation we have to look across the Atlantic for the evidence of expenditure. Open Secrets reports that News Corp spends on average more than $5 million lobbying federal government in the US every year. In 2010 they hired 32 lobbyists, a former lawmaker and lobbied on 19 separate bills (www. News Corp also donates hundreds of thousands of Dollars each year to Federal candidates for office, with in the last decade more than half going to the Democrats – an indication that interests and not ideology is at stake.

Unlike other corporations, however, they also have another weapon, which is the power of their media outlets to promote their friends and demote and destroy those who get in their way. Anne Diamond has testified to this in her own case, and there can be little doubt that News International was a significant force in the destruction of the Scottish Socialist Party, whatever role we might assign to bit players in the drama.

The relationship with the SNP apparently causes shudders in some of the wiser hands in the party. Others, however, expressing the heterogeneity and marked lack of a coherent ideology in the SNP, seem to be able to perform all sorts of intellectual somersaults in rationalising the support of News International or indeed other conservative media corporations like the Daily Express.

The demise of the New of the World and the withdrawal of the BskyB bid are indications that the Murdoch star is at least for the moment waning in London. It remains to be seen whether a similar process will develop in Scotland.