Did News International do anything wrong?

Trick question. Of course they did. Using political clout to gain unfair competitive advantage, as seems to have been the case with interactions between News and Jeremy Hunt's office, is rent-seeking, illegal and wrong. Systematically hacking the phones of dozens of people, public figures or otherwise, for no reason but sensationalism, is even worse.

But this I'm not so sure about. John Major told the Leveson Inquiry about Murdoch (and by extension his newspapers) asserting their wish for policy changes, and threatening to withdraw editorial support if such changes weren't put in place.

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 organisation cannot support you.'
Admittedly John Major has been Prime Minister, and I have not, but it seems to me that organisations insisting on policy changes in exchange for their support would be pretty par for the course. Imagine a trade union lobbying about workplace relations laws; an environmental group demanding green regulation; an industry group seeking tax concessions.

Of course you might oppose those things as well. In fact some of them probably push pretty close to the rent-seeking I decried at the start of this post. I would actually argue that what News seems to have done is less objectionable than those other examples, because it's not much different to somebody sending a letter to the government setting out a similar position. The individual in that situation will have significantly less power; it is also true that an individual with an opinion on any subject will have significantly less power than a newspaper with an editorial on it, so I don't see that this is necessarily an issue.

The issue in question was to do with British membership of the European Union. This isn't really something that affects Rupert Murdoch, or the editors of his newspapers, or the success of those newspapers. So the 'ultimatum' being laid down here is not really exerting undue influence as much as it is staking out a political position and sticking to it. I do not believe in flat income tax; I will never support a party that does. The Sun does not believe in EU membership; it won't support a party that does. If we accept the notion that newspapers can and should have an editorial view on politics and policy, this doesn't seem like something we can really criticise.

Imagine if, instead of actually going to meet the PM and saying what he did in person, Rupert Murdoch had simply had his newspapers lay out their position totally unambiguously in print. If The Sun had for weeks or months published op-eds railing against EU membership and editorials expressing opposition to it, in a way that made it perfectly clear it could not support the Conservatives unless they changed their policy - well, what's to object to? And if there is nothing, then what is the salient difference between that hypothetical and what actually transpired?

I will disclaim that I don't know everything, or even that much, about the circumstances in the run-up to the 1997 election. There are a couple of things that could muddy the waters as I've presented them here. For example, if the Murdoch press never had staked out its Euroscepticism, the demand becomes a little more peculiar and less straightforward. If the Labour Party to which those newspapers switched affiliation was just as pro-Europe as the Conservatives, then it does begin to look more like unreasonable power-wielding than political consistency. So it may be that this particular instance is not justified or reasonable. I would maintain, though, that in general a newspaper having a political position and insisting on it is not evidence of anything undue or insidious.

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