When the bailiffs come to your home, you know the reason, you do not have to ask.
I have never met Rupert Murdoch nor am I likely to meet him. If we were to meet, especially if he were to come to my home or my work, I would know why he wanted to meet. He would not come to discuss the finer points of Machiavelli’s political philosophy. He would come because the meeting served his purposes either to help himself or to help me (which would help him in some way). Yet, at the Leveson inquiry over the past two days of testimony, we have been led to believe that when he met with political leaders he never asked for anything from them.
Let’s make a deal.
For most people, it would seem incredible that this could be the case. They desperately want to believe that there was a “deal” or there was an “agreement”. They want to believe that Murdoch has somehow lied to them. The reality, though, is that Murdoch is telling the truth, a truth, about how political influence works. To understand how political influence works, one has to consider two powerful political figures, Richard M. Nixon and Huey Long and the movies that have been made about them. In turn, these will help us understand what the Leveson inquiry has achieved with the interviews.
Nixon: presidents don’t threaten, they don’t need to.
In the Oliver Stone film Nixon, there is scene where Nixon goes to meet some of his Texas supporters. They are disgruntled with Nixon’s policies and want him to change his ways. Nixon, aware of their concerns and the need to move beyond them, does not prove response. They become angry and Nixon explains to them that if they do not like what he is doing how would they like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) looking at them. They respond: “Is that a threat?” Nixon turns to them, half in shadow, and says, “Presidents don’t threaten. They don’t have to.”
Influence means you do not have to ask
Political influence, when it is as strong as Rupert Murdoch’s, never states openly what it wants because it does not have to. If Rupert Murdoch is meeting with someone, they will know why he is meeting and what he wants from the meeting. Good politicians understand their audience and their networks. They will not need to have the conversation or state openly what is to be exchanged or what is in play. To do that would be crass. It would be like asking someone wealthy how much money they have. It would indicate that the other person did not know how to exercise influence. Alternatively, that they had a specific motive or reason for stating openly what could be inferred.
Huey Long: Political influence can be used to break opponents
When political influence is exercised openly, it usually has a blunt aim. We can see this in the book and the film All the Kings Men. They are very loosely about the historical Huey Long. He understood political influence. He knew how to exercise it publicly to succeed. The character in the movie understands the vulnerabilities of others, which is how he gains influence or leverage over others. He says speaking to his main political operative, “Jack, there’s something on everybody. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption”. By understanding the weaknesses and needs of others, especially their political weaknesses and needs, Rupert Murdoch is able to exercise his political influence.
The sliding scale of political influence
When someone seeks to exercise influence, it has to be exercise personally. The less personal involvement means less influence. However, the more powerful a person is, the less it has to be exercised personally. In those situations, a person’s status within an organisation or the organisation itself multiplies the influence. When the need for influence is high, the stakes are high, the more likely the meeting will be in person. We can see a scale of influence demonstrated by the method of contact. At the basic level, would be a personal letter. Moving up the scale, a personal representative would be sent. Continuing up the scale, a personal telephone call would be used. Finally, the most powerful and last level for the meetings on topics of greatest importance, where the influence has to be exercised personally, they will be done face to face.
When powerful people meet, their agendas are set well in advance. These are not spontaneous events based on a whim of “being in town.” The work required to arrange the meeting and co-ordinate schedules means that it has to be productive for both parties. In that process, both parties will understand the basis for the meeting, if only in outline. The specifics may be determined but both parties will know before the meeting what they wanted out of it and after it what they achieved from it.
What the Leveson inquiry has done, through Murdoch’s testimony, is show us how political influence is exercised. In particular, we can see it in what Murdoch did not say. He has not criticized the two men still to testify that can harm him because he still needs them: David Cameron and Tony Blair. In this, he has kept his side of the political influence bargain. He has not revealed anything that they would have wanted to keep concealed. By doing this, he retains the leverage in their relationship.
The testimony also demonstrates what Leveson has set out to check. He has an excellent example of how the press influence politicians just before he moves on to the politicians. By setting the framework, he can then interview the politicians against that framework. In particular, they will have to explain all the outcomes that were achieved by Murdoch without him having to ask for anything. What makes this particularly challenging is that decisions are known by their outcomes. The outcomes need political acts within a bureaucracy. To make a bureaucracy work, one has to look for the paper trail that turned the decisions into outcomes. Tracing back through these we can then ask the politicians how they came to a decision that had an outcome favourable to Murdoch.
The next Leveson module, on politicians, will be very interesting. The other side of the political influence relationship will be revealed. What remains to be seen is whether reform can be achieved.
- Rupert Murdoch Testifies at Leveson Inquiry in Britain – NYTimes.com (policyabcs.wordpress.com)
- How convincing was Rupert Murdoch? (guardian.co.uk)
- Mayne on Leveson: how Robert Jay QC should line up for day 2 (crikey.com.au)
- Live-Blog: Rupert Murdoch Gives Evidence To Leveson’s UK Media Ethics Inquiry (m.deadline.com)