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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

If Ed Miliband keeps going he may get the biggest scalp - David Cameron

Ed Miliband is onto something. He knows it too. He's chipping away at a fault line in David Cameron's defences which could turn into a massive earthquake if Cameron has to answer one question on oath - "was the retention of Andy Coulson in Downing Street after the election the condition on which you got the support of News International's papers?" I'm not one for hyperbole, but if it's true, then he will be truly compromised and may have to resign.

Miliband has had an excellent fortnight. He has gone from a laughing stock to the central pillar around whom the country's horror at the behaviour of the News of the World has been built. He tells of the day he decided to come out against them and it says a lot about the power News International thought they had.  He talked in Saturday's Guardian about receiving a phone call from News International to ask what his response will be to the allegations about hacking into Milly Dowler's phone, went into Parliament and demanded an investigation and the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, and received another phone call from News International to warn him that "now he was making it personal against them they would make it personal against him." To his credit, he hasn't backed off since and he is reaping the political dividends rightfully.

Another person who has grown massively in stature throughout this process is the Labour MP Tom Watson. Once one of Gordon Brown's main attack dogs, he has already been named "Committeman of the Year" by the House of Commons for his persistent attempts to get action on phone hacking as a member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee. He talked on radio the other day about being called rude names by Sun reporters two weeks ago, and being insulted about his weight (which he wasn't bothered by). Then, he alleges, he was told by the Sun journalist that they were sitting on stories about him and if he didn't "back off" they would print them. Thankfully, Watson either has enormous backbone or knows that they have nothing on him because he hasn't backed off one bit.

Back to Miliband though. At the same time as wanting to know about the past he is focussing on the future too. He produced an excellent speech back in June on "responsibility" - putting together bankers and welfare cheats and asking them to show more responsibility (worth a read here). This crisis has come along at a time when he has been able to expand that to all of those with any power. An A-level student of mine once wrote a global politics exam essay around the quote "with great power comes great responsibility", attributing it to Gandhi when it fact it was from Spiderman the movie (!). His sentiments were correct though, and Miliband has expanded his narrative to include politicians, media owners and anyone else who has a bit of power. Even if he has been "lucky" to have so effectively captured the zeitgeist, he may well have a narrative that can propel him and the Labour Party forward to 2015 when they will so need a compelling narrative in order to get back into government. If he can hang some compelling policies around this he really will be going in the right direction.

Connected to that is the question raised by both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg about whether the type of media power prevalent in this country should ever be allowed. Rupert Murdoch owned newspapers totalling 40% of circulation in this country and a major broadcaster. Richard Desmond owns a few newspapers and a terrestrial channel. That is a large concentration of power and the dividends Murdoch in particular received for the power he held were huge. It has been shown that David Cameron met News International executives since he got into power as many times as all other newspapers put together. Is that right? Expect to see as part of this whole process a decision on the limit of media ownership allowed. This isn't an argument about private vs public or capitalism vs state, it's about government ensuring that democracy isn't affected by the proceeds of capitalism. The basic tenets of Conservatism argue that the role of the state is to ensure that the worst excesses of capitalism and private sector ownership are curbed (thereby ensuring, as Thomas Hobbes stated, we don't live a "nasty, brutish and short existence"). It assumes that man is born with "original sin" and needs to be guided. Turns out that News International needs to be guided, and in the absence of any sense of leadership on this from David Cameron and the Conservatives, Miliband has stepped into the breach.

Which leads us onto the question that David Cameron may one day have to answer. Was Rupert Murdoch's power so great that he could insist that a man clearly tainted by association with scandal had to remain at David Cameron's side, a direct contact for News International into the corridors of power? If so, and if Cameron didn't act responsibly and say that their support wasn't worth the risk, then he may have to take ultimate responsibility for that. Ultimate responsibility is what Sir Paul Stephenson has just taken by resigning from the Met Police for their links to Neil Wallis, links about which he says he didn't know. Cameron insists he didn't know either, yet he still took the risk and now may need to take responsibility for the outcome.

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