Few political operatives and quasi journalists would be daring enough to combine burglary, pornography, and patriotism in a political campaign, but then Rupert Murdoch’s minions with their ravenous appetites for sensationalism and success at any price play by their own rules.
Australian Murdoch set his sights on Britain in the early seventies. It was not long before his sensation seeking tabloids masquerading as newspapers had played a key role in installing a personal favorite as prime minister with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party victory in 1979 over a badly divided Labour Party led by James Callaghan.
Thatcher had served longer during a continuous period than any British prime minister since Lord Liverpool’s 14-year run commenced in 1812. Storm clouds hovered by 1990, however, after Thatcher’s Conservatives trailed Labour consistently over a year and a half period.
Thatcher’s scolding nanny manner began rankling many voters. Many saw Thatcher as harsh and heartless, as evidenced by the manner that she used oppressive taxation to wring inflation out of the British economy, drawing even the opposition of Milton Friedman, the American economist she idolized. During this period British homelessness began dramatically increasing.
Many Tories began fearing that the party was heading for a disastrous defeat in the next national election. Michael Heseltine seized the moment by challenging Thatcher for party leadership. He lacked sufficient strength to win, but his effort received enough support to force a second ballot.
Thatcher insisted that she would be able to lead the Conservatives to another victory and turn around public opinion, but a significant number of Tory leaders prevailed upon her to resign. Her ultimate reading of the tea leaves beckoned her resignation. Still, even at that weakened juncture Thatcher held enough influence to rally a majority of Tory members of Parliament to select her protégé John Major to replace her.
While Major helped close the gap, the Tories were still underdogs against a Labour Party hungry for victory after more than a decade out of power. Rupert Murdoch’s mighty United Kingdom machine had helped Margaret Thatcher enormously. It was determined to see that successor Major remained in power following the 1992 election.
Current disclosures about the Murdoch machine hacking the e-mail accounts of famous Brits from Prime Minister Tony Blair to Hugh Grant, Prince Charles, Prince William, and shamefully, even a deceased young girl, revealed the kind of burglary mentality that reared its ugly head as the 1992 British election campaign moved into gear.
Tory polling revealed that the party risked losing vital seats in the ideological center from the Liberal Party, whose leader Paddy Ashdown had a splendid military record and was an articulate and likable figure who generated support through personal campaigning and speechmaking.
The objective was to sully Ashdown’s persona and make him vulnerable. Ashdown’s past included an affair with his secretary Tricia Howard. News of the World pounced. At the time it was thought that a team of Murdoch and Tory underground dirt diggers dug beneath the surface to retrieve the information, after which it was exploited with maximum effect.
The underground tactics ultimately backfired. The British public admired Ashdown and his wife Jane for facing down critics. Jane explained that her husband had owned up to his transgression and she had forgiven him well before the Tory-Murdoch dirty tricks team divulged the information.
The Murdoch team had decidedly better results by using its newspaper cum tabloid, The Sun, to devastating advantage. It was used as a Conservative electoral propaganda sheet. The emphasis increased as the election drew near as the polls showed the Tories edging ever closer to Labour.
A twin-tiered approach was employed in The Sun. A bizarre mixture of propaganda and patriotism was invoked. This symbiotic relationship embodied an appeal to patriotism with emphasis on the Union Jack. The Labour Party was conversely depicted as a dangerous organization determined to bring socialism to Britain.
Frequently these appeals to the high-minded instincts of voters were seen resting next to scantily clad young women bearing their bosoms, a tactic used to boost circulation. So hormones were teased to bring men aboard while lofty patriotism was exploited to garner Conservative votes.
Neil Kinnock was a superb organizer who lacked charisma. Labour’s leader sought to cultivate a new image for his party by steering it away from its more leftist, socialist-grounded roots. Tony Blair would more sharply accent this tactical change in the 1997 election against John Major that brought the party back into power for the first time since 1979.
The 1992 election was a cliffhanger. For a while it was thought that a hung Parliament would result with neither Labour nor the Tories holding a majority, in which case Ashdown’s Liberals would make the critical difference.
Major barely held onto power. A post-election poll revealed that had 1,500 votes in key marginal districts been switched, Kinnock would have formed a Labour government. The poll also revealed that a significant number of late deciders broke for the Conservatives to make the difference.
Of those previous undecided voters that broke just before voting, which source made the difference? A sturdy majority were Sun readers.
The symbiotic relationship of the Union Jack and patriotism paired with bare bosoms prevailed with Murdoch’s tabloid proving the difference maker.