Leveson asks senior ministers if News International attempts to “excite” public opinion about immigration.
While the Leveson inquiry attempts to tease out the more serious claims of phone hacking, it is fair to say that the more tabloid individualised celebrity nature of these papers is on trail instead of the political subject they sometimes unfairly pummell into the spotlight that attempt to turn public opinion.
It was the turn of some of the biggest names in the Coalition government to be grilled in Lord Leveson’s lair this week and Home Office Secretary, Theresa May, was asked a few questions about immigration, the press and policy formulation. She was asked if “certain sections of the press take a visceral view, not necessarily on the basis of what the public view is or might be, but in the light of what their editors personally believe?”
Ms May attempted to avoid the answer by deflecting the question to what the “members of the public” tell her on the “doorstop” and after further badgering from the barrister, who asked if the agenda was driven by a “particular slant” towards immigration that “excite opinion”, Ms May conceded that the viewpoints of papers varied but public opinion should be taken in conjunction with articles in the press.
Similarly, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was asked:
“I've heard evidence from groups that feel very, very disadvantaged by the way they're continually portrayed in the press, and of course the PCC requires an individual complaint, but if the material is about a group of people -- and there have been submissions from disabled groups, immigrant groups, transgender group, from women's groups -- they fall into a slightly different category from the politicians, who, of course, have different dynamics within which they have to operate. Would you agree?”
Osborne’s response was refreshingly honest about press impartiality and recognised the unfair discrimination of certain newspapers, however, he fell short of condemnation by insisting that laws exist to protect groups against discrimination and “a code for newspapers” wasn’t particularly an attractive option for politicians. He did push for a more independent Press Complaints Commission that sets “broader standards” for newspapers.
Osborne and other ministers may sing from the same hymn sheet on press standards and targeting of particular vulnerable groups by newspapers but when the former Prime Minister Sir John Major blew fire on press relations with politicians by telling Leveson that Rupert Murdoch requested a shift in European Union policy in return for the Sun’s support before the 1997 General Election, it became a little bit more believable that horse-trading with the Murdochs is often a factor in policy formulation [in return for favourable press coverage] that may have determined the (what Business Secretary Vince Cable referred to as “very damaging”) immigration cap in return for public support.
I only speculate on this matter as the cap and every other change in migration policy amounts to a regressive exclusion policy rather than a sophisticated reform of the immigration system.
It would be good to see what public opinion expertise Ms May and other ministers have at their disposal that determines Home Affairs policy in light of their claims that public opinion, not press coverage, drives policy formulation on immigration. I remain sceptical that ministers often use sophisticated public polling on immigration, as they claim, and set strategic direction for their civil servants to implement policies that sometimes seem unworkable and unachievable, which even hamper economic growth by projecting the UK as closed for business.