Mandelson says press is 'like trade unions in the 1980s'

  • Press ‘too powerful for any government to take on’
  • ‘You can be friendly with journalists, but journalists are never your friends’
  • Relationship with Murdoch was ‘polite and interested, but not close’
  • Labour government displayed ‘a strong pro-BBC bias’

Former business secretary Lord Mandelson has accused the national press of behaving like the ‘trade unions of old’by attempting to operate above the law.

And the Labour peer believes that, like the unions in the 1980s, the time may have come to ‘finally’take on the power of the press.

In written evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Mandelson said: ‘The fact is, the press has been too powerful for any government, in normal circumstances, to take on.

‘Like the trades unions of old, they want to operate above the law. And like the trades unions, when you try to apply the law, they shout from the rooftops about basic freedoms and fundamental rights.”

He added: ‘Perhaps, because of all that has now happened and been revealed about the invasions of privacy, law-breaking and deceptions, the time for the press has also finally arrived.

‘But it will take a brave government and I would not bank on their nerve holding.”

The phone-hacking scandal that led to the closure of the NoW, argued Mandelson, came about because the tabloid was ‘unable to rise above its competition, so chose to sink below it”.

‘You can take journalists into your confidence, but not trust them’

Elsewhere in his evidence, Mandelson said that his dictum on friendships with journalists was: ‘You can be friendly with journalists, but journalists are never your friends” or “you can take journalists into your confidence, but not trust them”.

He identified ‘two emerging phenomena’in relations between politicians and the media in recent years: an ‘increasing assumption of the media’s right to total, immediate disclosure’and an ‘increase in their scepticism that the information they receive is accurate”.

But this was coupled with ‘every journalist’s desire to be another Woodward or Bernstein”.

The ‘intensity’of this relationship has grown with the advent of 24-hour news and its ‘rapacious demand for instant information and answers’, placing the political world under intolerable pressure”.

He argued that a shift from ‘conventional news to a pre-occupation with celebrity, scandal, gossip and sexual revelation’was pioneered by News International titles but was not limited to them.

‘It has downgraded or degraded political coverage which is to the public’s disadvantage,’he argued.

‘But, significantly, it has also reduced the newspapers’ political influence and encourages the public to look to more objective and genuinely independent sources of news and comment.”

Mandelson, who described his relationship with Rupert Murdoch as ‘polite and interested, but not close”, said the hacking scandal was ‘about the relationship between the paper and its journalists not its proprietor and politicians.

Labour government displayed ‘a strong pro-BBC bias’

Arguing that technological advances such as the internet had ‘radically changed the media landscape”, he claimed that events at News International were a product of the fact that the media has not learned how to deal with these changes.

‘Faced with unprecedented competition from online sources, the News of the World reacted with increasingly desperate, gossipy stories, errors of judgement as to what constituted the public interest and a failure to enforce a regime of high journalistic standards and ethics.

‘Effective regulation would certainly help to counter this, but at root it is a question of economics, culture and quality of management, not just ethics.”

Commenting on the Labour government’s relationship with the BBC, Mandelson admitted Murdoch ‘would be justified in accusing the last Labour government of a strong pro-BBC bias”.

During the last government’s tenure the ‘size and scope of the BBC’grew with the advent of new digital channels while its website ‘came to dominate on-line news”.

‘I cannot think of any substantive request that was not granted to the BBC,’he said. ‘In contrast, when Sky wanted to buy Manchester United this was rejected by the Competition Commission.

“And in the case of newspapers, a public interest test was introduced for consideration of mergers, and privacy provisions were introduced via the Human Rights Act.”

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