Power of the press makes British politicians cower

By Sarah Lyall
New York Times / July 10, 2011

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LONDON - In 2004, Clare Short, a Labor member of Parliament, learned what could happen to British politicians who criticized the country’s unforgiving tabloids.

At a lunch in Westminster, Short mentioned in passing that she did not care for the photographs of saucy, topless women that appear every day on Page 3 of the populist tabloid The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. “I’d like to take the pornography out of our press,’’ she said.

Big mistake. “ ‘Fat, Jealous’ Clare Brands Page 3 Porn’’ was The Sun’s headline in response. Its editor, Rebekah Wade (now Rebekah Brooks and the chief executive of News International, Murdoch’s British subsidiary), sent a busload of semidressed models to jeer at Short at her house in Birmingham.

The paper stuck a photo of Short’s head over the body of a topless woman and found a number of people to declare that, in fact, they thoroughly enjoyed the sexy photographs. “Even Clare has boobs, but obviously she’s not proud of them like we are of ours,’’ it quoted a 22-year-old named Nicola McLean.

It is the fear of incidents like this, along with political necessity, that has long underpinned the uneasy collusion between British politicians and even the lowest-end tabloids here.

Politicians generally deplore tabloid methods and articles - the photographers lurking in the bushes, the reporters in disguise entrapping subjects into sexual indiscretion or financial malfeasance, the editors paying tens of thousands of dollars for exclusive access to the mistresses of politicians and sports stars, the hidden taping devices, the constant stream of stories about illicit sex romps. But the officials have often been afraid to say so publicly, for fear of losing the papers’ support or finding themselves the target of their wrath.

If showering politicians with political rewards for cultivating his support has been the carrot in the Murdoch equation, then punishing them for speaking out has generally been the stick. But the latest revelations in the phone-hacking scandal appear to have broken the spell, emboldening even Murdoch allies like Prime Minister David Cameron to criticize his organization and convene a commission to examine press regulation.

The power to harass and intimidate is hardly limited to the Murdoch newspapers; British tabloids are all guilty to some extent of using their power to discredit those who cross them, politicians and analysts say.

“The tabloid press in Britain is very powerful, and it’s also exceedingly aggressive, and it’s not just News Corp.; The Mail is very aggressive,’’ said John Whittingdale, a Conservative member of Parliament who is chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. “They do make or break reputations, so obviously politicians tread warily.’’

Those who do not pay a price. Cherie Blair, wife of former prime minister Tony Blair, was regularly tortured in print by the right-leaning Daily Mail because she made no effort to cultivate it and because it was not an admirer of her husband’s government.

In a stream of articles, The Mail portrayed her as greedy, profligate and a follower of wacky alternative medicine regimes, and selecting unflattering photos to make her look chunky and ill-dressed.

But politicians have always been most afraid of the sting of The Sun and its Sunday sister (at least until today, when it is to close), The News of the World, because the papers’ good will is so important politically.

“Privately, MPs say all sorts of things, but most of them have kept very, very quiet about Rupert Murdoch until now,’’ said Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism at City University London. top stories on Twitter

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