Magazine article The Spectator

Mrs Robin Cook, Miss Wendie Deng and the Prince of Darkness

Magazine article The Spectator

Mrs Robin Cook, Miss Wendie Deng and the Prince of Darkness

Article excerpt

Perhaps the publication by Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times of Mrs Robin Cook's memoirs, revealing details of the Foreign Secretary's private life, will finally persuade Labour's parliamentary majority to do something to bring the media back under the law. When Tony Blair formed his government, I pointed out to him that the media was the equivalent in the 1990s of the out-of-control unions of the 1970s. The unions had destroyed the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments and would have gone on eroding the constitution had not Margaret Thatcher tamed them, once and for all. Now, I said, the media was doing the same thing: `It has effectively destroyed the Major government, and will destroy yours too.' Blair laughed: `The media is something we have to live with' was his confident reply. When I put the same point to Peter Mandelson, I got a similar answer. There was no possibility of Parliament legislating to curb the press, he said, and anyway such a measure would not work. Having heard exactly the same things said about the unions, when we were campaigning for the abolition of their legal privileges in the 1970s, I was content to wait for events to do their work. And that is what is now happening. The national newspapers have emerged from the Last Chance Saloon, drunk with power and spoiling for a fight. Will MPs have the courage to give it to them?

What may steel the politicians' resolve is the obvious double standard that operates, under which proprietors and editors, but nobody else, are protected from intrusion. While Robin Cook is being crucified over his divorce, the most interesting divorce case of the decade -- Murdoch's own has gone unreported, except in the brief, sanitised terms laid down by the tycoon himself. His wife is keeping quiet because she stands an excellent chance, under Californian law, of getting half his entire empire. But what of his Chinese mistress, Wendie Deng, living in what his papers would call a `love nest' in New York? She is young, pretty and determined, and her desire to play a major role in Murdoch's world media empire is causing great uneasiness among his children. But to read about it, you have to turn to Le Monde, which is not a party to the mutual non-aggression pact of the British press. Le Monde put this fascinating story on its front page. Not a word appeared in the Times, or anywhere else in Britain so far as I know. Now don't misunderstand me: I don't want Murdoch's private life invaded either. But the privileged protection he insists on for himself ought to be accorded, as of legal right, to Robin Cook and everyone else.

The corruption of the press operates according to a media Gresham's Law: bad coverage drives out good. The intrusive methods of the gutter tabloids have been adopted by the up-market tabloids and, increasingly, by the broadsheets. The Times and Guardian have long been lost causes, and now even the Telegraph papers are beginning to publish 'confessional' material. A malodorous wet-rot is spreading upwards from the sewer. And all this repellent stuff is eating up the column inches available for serious news. Indeed, the old distinction between popular and quality papers has gone. Recently we have had the unedifying spectacle of Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, rolling in the gutter with Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror (and formerly of the News of the World), each trying to gouge the other's eyes out over who got the Mandelson 'leak' first, and each accusing the other of lying. …

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