'Social apartheid' needed between press and politicians

The Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator Peter Oborne told the Leveson Inquiry that meetings between journalists and politicians ‘should be viewed as a potential conspiracy against the public”.

Oborne, a former reporter for the Evening Standard and Daily Express, warned that meetings between ministers and editors and proprietors were even more of a risk.

Journalists should instead pay more attention to speeches, white papers and parliamentary debates – and ‘less to informal contacts”, he said in a written statement submitted to the inquiry.

‘The House of Commons used to enforce a system of social apartheid between reporters and politicians,’he said. ‘It is a great pity this no longer exists.”

Oborne, a former political columnist for The Spectator and Daily Mail, said he was ‘astonished’the House of Commons failed to take ‘severe action’against ministers who leaked announcements to the press.

He added: ‘A great deal of George Osborne’s recent budget appears to have been handed over to his allies in the press and media. Sixty years ago the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dakon resigned after inadvertently handing one tiny snippet to the Evening Standard as he walked into the chamber to give his budget speech.”

Elsewhere in his evidence, Oborne argued that the press and broadcast media had consistently failed to hold politicians to account and that the ‘biggest disasters’of his lifetime – such as entry to the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – were ‘cheered on by the bulk of the mainstream press”.

He continued: ‘There is some reason to believe that the Murdoch connection with government contributed to the general News International sense of impunity.

‘Ministers were aware of the extraordinary fact that their own phones had been hacked by the end of 2006, yet appear to have taken no serious action.”

In oral evidence Oborne identified one of the ministers in question as former culture secretary Tessa Jowell.

He written evidence he claimed he could think of ‘no case where a cabinet minister has resigned or been sacked thanks to media pressure”, adding: ‘Ministers may resign following financial wrongdoing (David Laws, Peter Mandelson); lying and general incompetence (Stephen Byers); breach of ministerial rules (David Blunkett; Liam Fox); alleged lawbreaking (Chris Huhne); party intrigue (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair).

‘In almost all these cases the act of resignation has been preceded by damaging headlines. But damaging headlines alone can never force a minister out. There is always in my experience a more substantive reason. Sometimes press support may help secure a promotion.

‘Peter Mandelson’s swift return to the Cabinet after his first resignation occurred after a very powerful campaign in the Sun newspaper.”

Oborne also told the inquiry that Oborne said there was a reluctance of one newspaper group to embarrass another and national newspapers adhered to a Mafia-style silence over hacking.

He said: “There was pretty well an omerta in Fleet Street surrounding the very strong evidence about phone hacking.”

Oborne criticised the close relationship between political journalists and politicians, particularly at the most senior levels.

Political reporting had become a matter of private deals with journalists and politicians “entering into a conspiracy against the readers”, he said.

He said the MPs’ expenses “scam” was going on for years but was deliberately ignored by a negligent media.

The News International annual party conference receptions were extraordinary power events attended by the entire cabinet.

He added: “I saw again and again journalists and politicians entering into a conspiracy against the readers.

“People who tried to report objectively and fairly were frozen out, were bullied, victimised, not given information.

“People who were part of the inner circle and developed social connections with the powerful political people were favoured.”

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