At News Corp. Inquiry, A Window Into Murdoch’s Political Power

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News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch has routinely denied having a quid pro quo relationship with British politicians. But today, former Prime Minister John Major testified in front of the Leveson inquiry that in 1997, Rupert Murdoch specifically asked him to shift his administration’s approach in dealing with Europe.

“It is not very often someone sits in front of a prime minister and says ‘I would like you to change your policy and if you don’t change your policy my organization cannot support you,’” Major recalled. The Conservative Party member served as prime minister from 1990-97; during his 1997 re-election campaign, Murdoch’s newspapers got behind Labour’s Tony Blair, who won the next election.

Major also testified that he was “too sensitive” about press coverage during his tenure and that Murdoch’s “sheer scale of the influence … is an unattractive facet in British national life.”

But despite being a regular target Murdoch’s press, was Major also helped by it during the 1992 election? Maybe. One of Murdoch’s favorite former editors, The Sun’s Kelvin MacKenzie, told FRONTLINE how he crafted a headline for The Sun that may have tipped voters in the Conservative Party’s favor, virtually ending the political career of Labour’s Neil Kinnock:

Kinnock was going to be a disaster for our country, or I thought he would be. So what we did was I took basically an old gag — I got a light bulb, stuck Kinnock in the middle of it, and the headline simply said, “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?”

It was a bit of fun, and fortunately, the good people of Britain agreed with me and, surprisingly, kept [Prime Minister John] Major in office, which turned out to be not necessarily the great triumph that it might have been, but it had been a damn sight better than Kinnock getting it.

And my point about that, if I played any role — Kinnock gives me the credit for doing it. Fantastic. I don’t often get credit.

During his Leveson testimony, Murdoch decried MacKenzie’s post-election headline — “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” — as “tasteless and wrong.”

Allegations of coziness between Murdoch and various British prime ministers — from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron (who testifies on Thursday) — are at the heart of Leveson inquiry. Chapter Three of our recent film Murdoch’s Scandal offers more background on this narrative (and the Kinnock light bulb):

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