UK Politics

Nothing personal: Politicians and their media friends

Rebekah Brooks and Tony Blair
Image caption Tony Blair was backed by News International during his time in power

Most people - if they had friends who routinely held them up to ridicule or exposed their secrets to the world - might eventually grow tired of them.

They might think twice about accepting invitations to parties - or inviting them round for a cosy chat over a few drinks.

But that is not how things have traditionally worked in British politics.

Britain's political leaders have gone to extraordinary lengths over the years to court media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch because they believe they need their support to win power.

They have even, as Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted, turned a blind eye to "bad practices" employed by some journalists, so keen are they to curry favour with the most powerful proprietor in the land.

But - amid ongoing revelations about the alleged behaviour of News International journalists and other media groups likely to come under the spotlight - could the traditional way of doing things be coming to an end?

Could the strange, mutually dependant, and often mutually destructive, type of friendship only seen between politicians and the media soon be thing of the past?

Politicians hate the idea that they could be pushed around by powerful vested interests.

In a BBC interview, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed he had no friends at News International - and that he had resisted attempts to influence government policy when he was in Downing Street.

But his period in office still saw efforts to woo Mr Murdoch - the two men appeared alongside each other at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2007 - and he and wife Sarah were guests at the wedding of News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks.

Public anger

His successor as Labour leader, Ed Miliband also courted the Murdoch empire - employing a former Times reporter, Tom Baldwin, as his media chief and attending the media mogul's summer party.

Image caption David Cameron says political leaders have got too close to media moguls

But in the wake of public anger over the phone hacking scandal, Mr Miliband took the risky step of calling for Mr Murdoch's bid to take control of BSkyB to be blocked and for Mrs Brooks to be sacked.

By effectively burning his bridges with the Murdoch empire, Mr Miliband risks the sort of full frontal assault that helped sink Neil Kinnock's hopes of power at the 1992 general election.

It was the treatment meted out to Mr Kinnock by the Murdoch press - and The Sun in particular - in 1992 that led directly to Tony Blair's decision to woo the media baron.

In his autobiography, Tony Blair describes with relish how he shocked Old Labour stalwarts with his 1995 decision to address Mr Murdoch and other top News International executives at an Antipodean resort.

And he describes how he grew to like and admire the press baron, despite his right wing views, because he was an outsider and had "balls".

Out of control

Opposition leaders are hungry for power - and the prospect of getting close to those perceived to have it can be hard to resist.

Once he had been in power for a few years, Mr Blair came to regret the amount of time and energy New Labour had devoted to courting the media.

But he never attacked the Murdoch empire or any other newspaper group by name and although he believed the media was out of control, he always resisted calls from within his own inner circle to take them on.

David Cameron and George Osborne were keen students of Mr Blair's rise to power and it was assumed that they would want to court media barons in a similar way.

Mr Cameron's friendship with Rebekah Brooks and other members of the Murdoch inner circle - he was at school with her husband, racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks, and the couple socialise with the Camerons - is well-documented.

'Arm's length'

But his initial choice of press chief - George Eustice - suggests he may have had something different in mind.

A former strawberry farmer and UKIP election candidate, Mr Eustice had no previous connections to the media/Westminster elite, beyond running the anti-euro Business for Sterling campaign.

"There was a very concerted attempt not to play this game, to keep the media at arm's length," he told BBC Two's Newsnight.

But when it looked as if Gordon Brown was about to call an election that he might win in 2007, Mr Eustice was elbowed aside in favour of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson - seen as a tougher and more experienced operator, in the Alastair Campbell mould.

Like a growing number of observers, Mr Eustice, now a Tory MP, believes politicians have over-estimated the power of the Murdoch empire and the press in general - and that the days of cosying up to powerful interests could, and should, be over.

Labour MP Tom Watson, who has been dogged in his pursuit of the phone hacking issue, believes the events of the past week will lead to a genuine change in the way politicians deal with the media.

"I think the familiarity between these people is going to be reduced," he told BBC Two's Newsnight.

It could start with a shake-up of the arcane rules that allow media moguls and others to slip unnoticed into Number 10 for private chats, said Mr Watson.

"If you ask for the prime minister's diary, when Rupert Murdoch visits Number 10, if he goes downstairs it's published but if he has a meeting in the flat, it's considered a private meeting," he told BBC News.

The story of the past three decades or more has been one of successive prime ministers promising to get a grip on media standards - and stand up to powerful vested interests - and ultimately failing to act.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Cameron - for all his admissions of culpability and promises to launch inquiries - will be different.