Something struck me during David Cameron's press conference about the "Hackgate" scandal last Friday. It was this particular passage:
Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers, we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, get on top of the bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated.It's a bit like MPs' expenses.The people in power knew things weren't right.But they didn't do enough quickly enough – until the full mess of the situation was revealed.Now, when the scandal hits and the truth is plain for everyone to see ... there are two choices.You can downplay it and deny the problem is deep – or you can accept the seriousness of the situation and deal with it.I want to deal with it.
I was a bit surprised, although pleasantly so that Cameron should admit that politicians have been too much in thrall to the tabloid press and the Murdoch press in particular. It is one of those aspects of public life that has been so prevalent for so long that it barely even merits a mention and of course politicians would never have admitted what Cameron has just done in public. Ed Miliband has also said something similar publicly too.
Cameron is of course responding to the current firestorm around the News of the World and tabloid phone hacking allegations. But the influence of the press generally and the tabloid press in particular runs much deeper.
Already Lance Price, Tony Blair's former spin doctor has off the back of this said that Murdoch had a very strong influence on Labour's attitude to the Euro during his time in office.
But there are lots of areas of policy where there is a strong suspicion that the influence of the tabloids and The Sun/NotW in particular has held sway. One of the most obvious has been in drugs policy.
I have become fairly active in campaigning for a relaxation of the drugs laws and lobbying for a more evidence based approach in recent years and have blogged about various aspects of it on many occasions. Given the fact that in his early days as an MP, David Cameron had put his name to a Select Committee report that recommended a more liberal approach to drugs I had hoped his election as Conservative leader would have heralded a new way of dealing with this. But by the time of the leadership campaign in 2005 his views were downgraded to "options should be considered" and by the time I questioned him on the subject in early 2010, just before the General Election he had very firmly distanced himself from his former views.
The strange way in which politicians seem willing to engage with and consider evidence based approaches to the subject of drugs policy when they are a long way from power and how that changes to backing the status quo as they get closer to power is somewhat hard to understand. Unless you factor in the way the press treats the issue with labels like "Soft on drugs" and appeals to emotion regarding keeping children safe (despite the fact that more children than ever can get drugs now under the current regime). Any senior politician who steps outside the narrow tramlines permitted for debate regarding drugs is apt to find themselves hounded by the tabloid press.
Here is what former Conservative Minister Phillip Oppenhein told me about the subject when I interviewed him a couple of years ago:
I think that politicians would be surprised at the response they would get to a serious debate on the subject. My experience is that a lot of Tories now favour reform, but they are terrified about being seen as soft on drugs by the media and prejudicing an almost certain election victory. Cameron had a chance to start a real debate when his own drug taking experiences became an issue, but I guess he was too timid to do so.
If politicians from the PM down are now genuinely throwing off the shackles off the tyranny of the tabloid press then they should no longer have anything to fear from an open and honest debate on this subject.
If that was to happen, perhaps something very good could come of this horrible scandal with the harm caused by drugs in our society greatly reduced under a liberalised, controlled regime rather than leaving it to the gangsters backed by screaming tabloid headlines.
This post was first published on Dale & Co.