‘Parliament declares war on Murdoch’, was the headline, as the British ruling classes awakened from their long somnolent acquiescence in political, media and police corruption. Suddenly, the political class shakes off the incubus of News International, and, at a bound, is free. What had begun as a study in hypocrisy ended in an orgy of penitence; and since in the mythology of Western progress, good always comes out of evil, the press, the media, the police and politicians will all have learned lessons and vowed ‘Never again’.
This litany of repentance is the surest preamble to the resumption of business as usual, as soon as the memory of current scandal can be erased. MPs, only last year, objects of scorn and revulsion, have rehabilitated themselves as fearless defenders of the people against the intrusion of Rupert Murdoch and his collaborators into the sorrows, not only of Prime Ministers, the royal family and celebrities, but also of the fallen in Afghanistan, parents of murdered children, victims of terror, and other ‘newsworthy’ personages who pass across the flickering screens of our wandering attention.
Rupert Murdoch, has been described as ‘press baron’, ‘mogul’, presiding over a media ‘empire’, while his son James is referred to as the ‘prince’ or ‘heir apparent’. The titles attributed to them are those of dynastic potentates. And in this modernised version of feudalism, the power they exercise is arbitrary and unaccountable, while those who serve them are treated as vassals, liegemen, expendable serfs. Their employees are impotent, as was demonstrated when the News of the World was closed on a whim. Indeed, Murdoch is credited with having ‘rescued’ the newspaper industry when, with the collusion and support of Margaret Thatcher, he destroyed the print unions in the 1980s He also apparently held his millions of readers in thrall, since they have apparently followed the ideological directives issued by his newspapers, and obligingly re-iterated the brutal morality and savage intolerance in which they have been so well instructed.
With News International’s acquisition of immense power, it was only natural that politicians – who could be elevated or destroyed by Murdoch’s fiat – courted him, cravenly seeking his ‘blessing’ in pursuit of electoral success, since their eligibility depended upon his imperial say-so. The Murdoch press was not only a major player in the making of governments, but their survival also depended upon him. Why otherwise did Tony Blair telephone him three times in the ten days preceding the invasion of Iraq? What did they discuss? Did Blair beseech Murdoch to support the ‘mission’, despite the mass demonstration of two million people, who, mere electors could not outweigh the elect of press ownership?
All this makes few converts to the version of ‘democracy’ which Western leaders never tire of preaching to rogue regimes and secretive cabals that run the dark places of the earth; the clouded transparency of their own conduct is a serious handicap to the spread of the democratic gospel. As the relationships between politics, press, police and people are uncovered, ‘governance’ is shown to be less the high calling it claims to be, but a stately quadrille to the music of money. All this provides rich instruction to India, Brazil, Russia, Egypt, Bangladesh and all the other countries on the receiving end of our lectures on cleansing corruption and ridding themselves of nepotism and cronyism.
What a festival of hypocrisy it has been; particularly after the serial cover-ups, designed to ensure what is now ‘in the public arena’ (a site maintained in penumbra by the lighting electricians of the media) remains in darkness, but which, thanks to the tenacity of the Guardian (earlier derided for persisting in the pursuit of what the wise and knowing had demoted to mere tittle-tattle), has now opened to scrutiny the real scope of illicit relationships, questionable unions and improper associations in public life – the staple fare of the now-defunct News of the World.
In the past three years, confidence in the pillars of our democracy has crumbled, so the whole edifice has the appearance of a neglected historic monument in urgent need of restoration: first it was the banks, no longer solid custodians of our addled nest-eggs, but obsessive gamblers with the people’s hard-earned money; then politicians, elected in the interests of who knows what shadowy powers; now the media, whose fearless devotion to truth has earned them lower public esteem than any other profession but the practitioners of politics. On top of that, the police failed to uncover the extent of criminal activity by the media conglomerate owned by Murdoch. Payments made by journalists to police officers for information, perfunctory investigations into phone-hacking and the refusal to re-open them as evidence of wrongdoing mounted, the interlocking social and professional relationships between senior police officers, executives of News International and politicians, both Labour and Conservative, regarded as facts of life are now revealed as only convenient fictions. The head of the Metropolitan Police resigned, since the force had employed a former deputy editor of News of the World; he petulantly demanded to know why his was a greater misdemeanour than David Cameron’s engagement of Andy Coulson, who had resigned over the phone-hacking affair.
The story has been a classic British scandal. First of all, it appeared a single reporter Clive Goodman, and a private detective Glenn Mulcaire, had hacked into the phones of three royal aides. They were found guilty and jailed in 2007; the customary scapegoats, the lone ‘bad apples’ beloved of the initial stages of any inquiry into British institutional improbity. The Metropolitan Police assured the public that only a handful of further cases had been uncovered, mostly dealing with the flamboyant infidelities of celebrities, whose sexual adventures were regarded by a majority as fair game for the tabloid press. The Editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, offered a heroic resignation since, although he knew nothing about the hacking, it had occurred ‘on his watch.’
Coulson was appointed in June 2007 by David Cameron as his chief ‘director of communications’, although his greatest skill proved to be his capacity for silence on events that mattered. Although many – especially in retrospect – found it a high-risk strategy, the engagement by politicians of tabloid media employees has become a necessity, since these are regarded as psychics, endowed with a mystical insight into the popular mind not vouchsafed to the politicians who are supposed to represent them. Only those with special powers can lend politicians ‘street credibility.’
When celebrities whose phones had also been hacked by the News of the World pursued civil cases in the courts, News International made settlements with individuals (signed off by James Murdoch, who subsequently said he was not fully aware of the reasons for the pay-offs and the expensive promises of silence). In spite of 11,000 pages of notes kept by the apparently obsessive detective Glenn Mulcaire having been passed to the Metropolitan police in 2006, which disclosed the existence of thousands of potential victims of phone-hacking, the Metropolitan Police insisted that the numbers amounted to ‘a handful.’ In 2009, the Guardian claimed that the News of the World was engaged in far more widespread illegality, the police decided not to relaunch the investigation which had fizzled out after the jailing of Goodman and Mulcaire. Only in January of 2011, they launched Operation Weeting, to look at ‘significant new information.’ Further arrests of News of the World journalists took place. Andy Coulson resigned from his post with David Cameron. On July 8, he was arrested. In early July, News International also handed over e-mails which showed that payments were made to the police in return for information.
In the avalanche of revelations that followed, it emerged that the telephone of Milly Dowler had been hacked in 2002, a teenager who had gone missing and was subsequently found murdered. The family, finding messages deleted from her phone had believed this indicated she might still be alive. After this, it was alleged the phones of the parents of murdered schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells had also been tampered with. Just when it seemed that the depths of cynical immorality had been finally reached, it appeared that the mobile phones of the victims of the London bombings in July 2007 might have been hacked; as well as those of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
It is significant that the Murdoch Press has posed as ‘friends of the people’ to bereaved families, the victims of murder, terror and war. The hacking of their phones says much about the depth of this love of the common people: it runs only as deep as the purse they are willing to open to pay for the view of the world peddled to them. Indeed, it is their contempt for the ‘ordinary people’ whose champions they claim to be, that is perhaps the most ignoble disclosure of the continuing revelations. Rebekah Brooks’ proudest achievement is said to be her campaigning for a law which enshrines the right of parents to be informed of the whereabouts of paedophiles in their neighbourhood; yet her dedication to the security of children did not prevent abuse of the dead child, Milly Dowler by journalists during her editorship of the News of the World. She claimed to have been ‘on holiday’ at the time.
While these interesting events were unfolding, the Murdochs’ News Corporation was confidently expecting that its $9 billion bid for BSkyB, to take complete control of Britain’s biggest TV broadcaster, of which it already owned 39 per cent, would be a mere formality, given a compliant Culture Secretary and the closeness of Cameron to the Murdochs, to whose daughter he is a near neighbour, and Rebekah Brooks. They have all made their home in the Cotswolds, an idyllic thatched-cottage image of a long-vanished England that had grown rich in the late Middle Ages on the then mightiest industry in the land, wool: perhaps the medieval décor transmitted to these people a sense of seigneurial impunity.
The phone-hacking disclosures created a wave of revulsion in Britain. The response of the autocratic Murdoch was to close down the News of the World, a paper which has existed for 168 years. Its demise was lamented, in a torrent of media regrets about the loss of a great newspaper, even though in my lifetime it has done little but peddle salacious stories, mainly of sexual irregularities, both of celebrities and ordinary people.
The effect on politicians who, the day before yesterday, could not wait to pay homage to Murdoch, has been to turn them vehemently against him and all his works. Those who attended his family’s weddings and parties, quaffed their champagne, sailed on their yachts and flaunted themselves under exotic floral arrangements in marquees on aristocratic lawns, united to reject Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB, from which he withdrew shortly before an emergency parliamentary discussion on the issue was to take place. Since Parliament has been offered a new sense of its own dignity in comparison to the machinations of the Murdoch empire, it has found its own redemption in the fall of the patriarch; although to be fair, certain MPs, Tom Watson and Chris Bryant proved themselves as dogged as the Guardian journalist Nick Davies, in pursuing what had been swept under the expensive carpets of the luxurious offices of press, politics and police.
It would, however, be premature to exaggerate the extent of politicians’ new-found ‘freedom from fear.’ Some commentators have even spoken of ‘revolution’. Events in Britain have been likened to the ‘Arab spring’, the removal of Ben Ali or Mubarak; this is true insofar as the tyrannical power of dictatorial individuals has been dissipated; but just as the structures of repression and intimidation remain in place in Tunisia and Egypt, so the recently vacated seats at the high table of News International await new celebrants at its perpetual banquet of human flesh.
Despite the breast-beating in Britain, politics remains an essentially non-representational art, and the relationship between electors and elected something of an abstraction. The arrest of ten (at the latest count) News International employees suggests it is still the servants who will go to the scaffold while the masters retreat into more impregnable havens. The much-vaunted ‘plurality’ of the media requires only a significant number of owners, even if the vast majority support a single party. This is a highly abridged notion of freedom: it does not extend to the freedom seriously to question the social and economic system itself (what newspaper proprietor would permit that?), even though it may call to account those who misbehave within it.
So the rejoicing should be muted; as a mummified Murdoch retreats into the comfort of his billions, and his loyal protégée, Rebekah Brooks, the waif-like pre-Raphaelite with a heart of flint, resigns and is arrested, Rupert Murdoch makes a pilgrimage of penitence to South London to apologise to the Dowler family, News International publishes a mea culpa in Britain’s papers. It should not be imagined, for all this, that there are not other, hungry, pitiless individuals, only too eager to promote themselves, like the Tea-Party movement in America, as ‘friends of the people’, in order to further corporate power and limitless wealth in the name of the people, to whose well-being, their cynicism and heartlessness testify their complete indifference. Significant are the events that have fascinated Britain in this chill summer of 2011; radical they are not. Individuals may be cast down from their place of eminence, but the thrones of power remain, awaiting their next transient occupants.