Just two months ago Theresa May went to the limit in the House of Commons to help the corporate press by securing the cancellation of the Leveson 2 inquiry into criminal activities by newspapers.
Her then Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, presented a shameless travesty of the facts about the state of press regulation, the nature of press freedom, the feelings of the public and the extent of reform that has taken place. Her whips, meanwhile, begged, bribed and bullied doubting Tory MPs into toeing the line, and when that was not enough she placed herself in even deeper hock to the Democratic Unionists by inducing them to make the journey from Northern Ireland to vote her way.
The price in terms of political capital was high, but she scraped home by nine votes – her narrowest victory in this Parliament.
This is her reward.
And here’s the Sun:
And the Mail:
They never learn. David Cameron also did shameful things to please these papers but far from rewarding him – far, even, from just giving him fair coverage – they hated him and belittled him. In this respect Conservative prime ministers are like heroin addicts: although their habit is killing them they just won’t kick it.
For make no mistake, they cannot sincerely believe that cancelling part two of the Leveson Inquiry was good for the country, or that the puppet IPSO regulator is capable of cracking down on inaccuracy, or that Leveson’s reforms would bankrupt local papers. Those arguments were comprehensively lost long ago.
In their lame public utterances on these matters all the Tories ever did was follow a script prepared by the Mail and the Murdoch papers – a mantra of shabby soundbites about press freedom and looking to the future. It was because Hancock, as leading minister, was required to say rather more when it came to formal debate that he was drawn into so many ludicrous misrepresentations.
We have to assume that they did these humiliating things, exposing themselves as the doormats of the corporate press, in the hope that the Mail, the Sun, the Times and the Telegraph would be kind to them. And look what happened.
The Daily Telegraph, the ultimate heartland Tory party paper, doesn’t just disagree with May about Brexit. It idly suggests that she may have committed treason, in other words that she knowingly sabotaged the interests of her country – an offence for which, until relatively recently in the lives of most buyers of the Telegraph, you could still be hanged.
It says something about May’s political competence that she plainly got no binding commitments from these papers when she went in to battle for them. Most likely it was a matter of ‘Yes, Mr Dacre’ and ‘Yes, Mr Murdoch’.
Did she have a choice? Of course she did. She could have done something principled and set Leveson 2 in motion. What names, worse than ‘traitor’, could they have called her? And the public, which does not trust the press and backs press reform in very large numbers, might well have responded to a prime minister who stood up to overmighty editors and proprietors.
There is a precedent, though it’s nearly a century old. When the Mail and the Express, owned by Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook, attempted to bring down Stanley Baldwin as Tory leader in 1931, he turned on them, publicly denouncing their methods and motives. Baldwin won the admiration of the public, was re-elected prime minister and eventually retired at the top.
The famous words that he used bear repeating, and Theresa May would have been wise to recycle them in public a couple of months ago:
‘What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’