Conservative Diary

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The Cameron-Murdoch relationship didn't win the last election for the Tories. It helped lose it.

By Tim Montgomerie
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I've never understood why David Cameron agreed to the election debates. When you're comfortably ahead in the polls you don't agree to a potentially game changing event. You certainly don't give the third party the equal status that they normally only get in parliamentary by-elections when they can focus their limited resources in just one place. The debates weren't, of course, the only factor that meant David Cameron fell short of a Commons majority (other explanations are listed here) but they were certainly a big contributor.

The most credible explanation I've ever heard for the decision was the fact that BSkyB desperately wanted the election debates. The explanation came to me from one of Cameron's closest advisers. The Tory high command agreed to the debates with Sky enjoying equal status to the BBC and ITV as part of a general desire to keep News International happy. You may remember the endless ads on Sky News, campaigning for election debates? So, yes, I'm willing to concede that politicians can get too close to media moguls.

Most of the time, however, when politicians are appeasing the tabloids they're not appeasing Rupert Murdoch or the Barclay brothers or Lord Rothermere or Richard Desmond. They are connecting with those newspapers' readers. I took part in a BBC Five Live discussion last night when the tabloids were painted as very sinister forces in the land. When politicians kow-towed to them it was painted as if they were kow-towing to their owners. Rubbish. Britain's newspapers, unlike politicians, face daily elections. People buy them or buy something else. If they don't represent their readers a newspaper will go bust. When 'the Quad' of The Sun, Mail, Express and Telegraph campaign on the military covenant or immigration or tougher prison sentences or petrol tax they are campaigning for us and not for their owners. Britain's press is more diverse and more energetic than any other press in the world. It certainly needs cleaning up but we mustn't lose that diversity in the process.

When the remit is set for the press inquiry launched by David Cameron last week there must be a mandate to protect diversity and investigative reporting, as well as the vital issue of ethical journalistic techniques.


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