For decades, Rupert Murdoch has dominated British public life to such an extent that politicians treated him with deference and fear, conscious that his News Corp and News International media organizations could make or break careers and even manipulate election victory via the support of The Sun and the News of the World.
Thanks to the brilliant campaigning journalist Nick Davies at The Guardian, which exposed the phone hacking scandal and cover-up involving politicians, the press and the police, Murdoch’s control of politics and public life in this country is now unravelling. Fighting for survival, and seeing himself persona non grata by the very politicians who until very recently were still queuing up to curry favour, Murdoch and his executives have become as toxic a brand as the News of the World became, shunned by advertisers and reviled by the public.
George Osborne persuaded David Cameron to import the ex-NoW editor Andy Coulson deep into the inner sanctum of No. 10, despite the questions hanging over him, following his resignation from the Murdoch empire after royal reporter Clive Goodman was sentenced to jail for phone hacking. But through Coulson, NI had a say in Conservative Party decision-making and in 2010, the support of The Sun delivered the ultimate prize to Cameron.
At his recent press conference, the Prime Minister failed to take the vital steps needed to extricate himself from the sordid alliance. But there may be complicated reasons for his inaction. There are a number of pro-News International members in the government. Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary, now dithering over the sale of BSkyB; Ed Vaizey, his deputy; Andrew Cooper, Director of Strategy at No. 10, George Osborne and Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Will Michael Gove also be drawn into the sleaze? In 2009, the Conservatives published a list of shadow cabinet ministers outside interests. News International were very generous to him, paying £5,000 a month for his services as journalist for one hour a week. That’s £1,250 a week. Contrast this with the £250 he received from Scotland on Sunday.
Gove and News Corp also share a common admiration of Joel Klein. Klein was the controversial New York Chancellor for Education between 2002 and 2010, when he implemented a series of reforms, closing down schools, opening up Charter Schools and implementing a standardized test-based formula to measure not just student’s progress, but teachers’ performance. Gove and his policy adviser-in-opposition-turned-civil-servant Sam Freedman have openly applauded Klein’s achievements in New York City.
A few weeks ago, Freedman drew positive attention to what Klein’s detractors would call a cynical and self-serving article he wrote for The Atlantic, justifying the decisions he made in New York. Klein was subsequently praised by Gove in one of his speeches on schools reform here. Just last week, Freedman stated that the Free School policy used NYC Charter schools as its model. Perhaps he was reluctant to state the government took inspiration from the Charter School model as a whole, since research has revealed that it is not the miraculous success Obama, the school reformers such as Klein and Michelle Rhee and Gove himself would claim it to be.
Joel Klein left his job as Chancellor of New York City Schools, to take up positions as Executive Vice-President in the office of the chairman and CEO of News Corp’s Education Division, apparently to develop software and other educational tools that would lead to a “huge transformation in the field of education”, bringing the Murdoch empire at the forefront of using technology to deliver instruction. His critics claim that more teaching will be computer based and that teachers will become more and more redundant in this landscape. Although there is no evidence for this, other detractors wonder if this is beginning of Murdoch establishing a Chain of Charter Schools, especially since he had made a huge philanthropic contribution to the Leadership Academy in New York, one of Klein’s signal pet projects. But the news last week that Murdoch has appointed Klein to “provide important oversight and guidance” as his company “fully cooperate with the police in all investigations”, puts him firmly into the centre of the phone hacking scandal that has already led to numerous arrests, claimed the careers of several high profile individuals and highlighted the cosy relationship between News Corp and government ministers, including Michael Gove, pro-News International and until recently on its payroll.
His admiration of Murdoch man Joel Klein – either as school reformer or effective cleaner up of Murdoch/government sleaze – could be put under scrutiny and to the test in the months or years to come.