The Tory leadership race and the dance of the newspaper moguls

29 May 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The Tory leadership race and the dance of the newspaper moguls

Ray Snoddy looks at how many of the leading candidates in the bid to become the next Prime Minister have complicated and deep rooted relationships with the national press

It is often claimed that the political influence of national newspapers has declined and that their power to dictate events and outcomes has been overtaken by technology.

Maybe it was always more of a myth than they liked to admit, although there are still those who see the sinister media moguls pulling the strings behind the scenes - the Murdochs of course, the Barclay brothers over at the Daily Telegraph and the Viscount Rothermere at the Daily Mail.

But in two small but perfectly formed electorates about to face a big decision, the Tory press barons could still rule supreme.

Their influence, and which way they finally jump, will be considerable in helping the 313 Conservatives MPs in the House of Commons to effectively choose the second Prime Minister in a row to enter Downing Street without having to face the electorate.

The media tone in the Conservative leadership battle will get really strident when the final two candidates are chosen to put to the ageing Conservative membership in the country - a privileged electorate of perhaps 120,000 on a good day.

Media mogul power takes many forms but at least two of the big proprietors have their own dogs in the race.

Boris Johnson is of course a columnist on the Daily Telegraph and the paper has milked his columns mercilessly as a source of front page splashes even when claims by the former Foreign Secretary have been denounced as factually inaccurate.

Misguided opinion turned into bogus hard front page news in a paper that used to pride itself on the accuracy of its news coverage.

The game has only begun and the game so far has involved opening up the columns of the papers, the Daily Telegraph included, to “comment” pieces enabling the many players to announce their candidatures.

So it was that the Daily Telegraph turned the throwing of Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s hat into the ring into a splash headline across all six columns – while maintaining the Johnson interest with a nice pic of Boris and his current girlfriend Carrie Symonds.

Admirably open-minded of the Telegraph to give such generous coverage to a leading opponent of “their” man Boris.

Or was it?

The Hunt line was that the Conservatives would be committing “political suicide” if they attempted to push through a No-Deal Brexit.

Any Prime Minister who tried to take Britain out of the EU without a deal would trigger a general election risking “the extinction” of the Conservative Party.

This apparently sensible line took only 24 hours to blow up in Hunt’s face as some of his potential supporters who don’t mind a No-Deal exit started to move their tents.

As The Times helpfully pointed out, Hunt was losing support to Michael Gove – as in the former Times journalist and columnist Michael Gove who is well known to Rupert Murdoch - because MPs believe he is flip-flopping on a No-Deal Brexit.

Hunt’s “gaffe” as The Times front-page headline tendentiously put it.

The Daily Mail is rather unfortunately short of its own in-house journalist who wants to be Prime Minister.

It does perhaps have the next best thing, a columnist who is the wife of a leading candidate who sincerely wants to be the next Conservative prime minister – Sarah Vine who happens to be married to Michael Gove.

She was in fine, simpering form in the latest edition of the Daily Mail.

“For the past couple of weeks there has been a bit of an elephant on this page. I have been doing my best to dance around it, but given recent events I just don’t think I can ignore it any more. My husband Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary is running for PM,” reveals Vine.

She admits he cannot operate dishwashers and took seven goes to pass his driving test but there is of course one job Gove would do well.

And the Gove approach to No-Deal, apparently reasonable but resolute, could appeal to the Daily Mail which will now have to find a new leader to cheer on following the implosion of Theresa May.

“And while he [Gove] is wary of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, he is equally determined that Britain will, one way or another, leave the EU,” Sarah Vine, columnist of the year explains.

Papers like The Times and Daily Telegraph will doubtless give extensive coverage to all the serious candidates because with this crazy electorate you never know.

But maybe, just maybe, The Times will agree with Sarah Vine and conclude that Michael Gove is the best man for the job. Above most things Rupert Murdoch values access to power to help protect what remains of his media empire.

It is not too hard for the Daily Telegraph - after much soul-searching - to decide that in the interests of the country, and defeating Labour, the foibles of Boris Johnson should be overlooked.

Equally the Daily Mail could plump for the Vine-Gove candidate.

Boris, it appears, does not have to rely on chance or lean too heavily on the Daily Telegraph.

The founder of the Guido Fawkes website has launched an online campaign to persuade members of the public to get in touch with their Tory MPs to nominate Boris for leader of the Party and PM.

The dance of the newspaper moguls will be highly entertaining over the next six weeks but the contest will also throw up many challenges for broadcasters.

The political drama will create endless stories and almost certainly live debates featuring the leading candidates. But they will all be about seven shades of Brexit.

As a result, the Remain case, which attracted the majority of those voting in the Euro-elections, will be side-lined and obscured at least up until the party conference season in September.

By then the UK could be within weeks of leaving the EU with or without a deal.

That imbalance, if it is not addressed by countervailing coverage, could be much more serious in the longer term than a few newspaper proprietors getting behind their favoured candidates.

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kevinhurdwell, managing partner, Acumen Media Partners LLP on 29 May 2019
“Ray, whilst the national press may have a declining influence due to declining circulations, the fact is all repetition of a desired narrative by those interested in maintaining power has an effect. Continued repetition of these narratives across other channels of influence, beyond the relatively small spheres of newspaper readership serve to self perpetuate the "norm" and push the interests of those who wish to maintain things as they are, or as they would like things to be. The opportunity for informed public debate is diminished by dominant narratives from those with the power to influence. Where does the self interest of those pulling the strings lie? Why are particular candidate favoured and who will provide a counter narrative to begin the process of supporting the interests of the many over the few?”

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19 Jun 2019 

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