An Autopsy of The News of The World Affair
It is terribly unfair how most of us seem to have made up our minds about the Murdoch Press. The serious allegations against the News of The World have not yet been proven. Our reaction was quite unreasonable and disproportionate. It was based on accusation and innuendo. We decided to go on a witch-hunt before the ordinary processes of justice had run their course.
But here is the delicious irony: we have been conditioned to behave like this by the Murdoch Press.
Only a couple of days ago, the Attorney General made representations in the High Court seeking a ruling of contempt against tabloid publications, including The Sun, over the vilification of Chris Jefferies in the Joanna Yeates murder – hung, drawn and quartered before he was even charged. The Murdoch empire has been absolutely instrumental in establishing a climate of sensationalism which has taken hold of much of this country’s media in the last few decades. Their hacks are always among the first alligators at any given feeding frenzy; among the first sharks to catch the scent of blood of the unionist, the depressed, the eccentric, the immigrant or the homo and sink their teeth in. They lived by the sword and they died by the sword.
I have some sympathy with the 200 individual workers who have lost their jobs. However, they are a small drop in an ocean of the many thousands of workers being laid off by a government that News International helped elect – and bragged about having done so. And again, I find a healthy dose of irony in the editors of The Sun walking out in support of their colleagues, having attacked every single legitimate strike in the last 30 years as extremist, leftie posturing.
I have even less sympathy with arguments that the demise of the News of The World is a loss to press pluralism. The absence of this Jordan-obsessed rag is as much a loss to pluralism as the throwing away of last week’s shopping list is a loss to literature. In any case, I am certain we shall be able to glean the Murdochs’ take on current affairs from their remaining three publications (as well as the soon-to-emerge Sun on Sunday – the relevant web domains having been registered two days ago).
The idea is propagated that Rupert Murdoch is sitting in a swivel-chair somewhere, deep within his Bond-villain lair, stroking a white cat. He is shrewd. He is cunning. He is a foreigner. He should not be allowed to control such a large slice of our media. This is as obvious and solid a notion, as it is lazy and convenient. It obfuscates the real issue, which is that nobody – no entity, no one person, no corporation - nobody should hold such power.
This is why the government must now act to stop the proposed takeover of BSkyB. Do not be side-tracked by their protestations that it is up to OfCom to decide whether the license-holders are fit and proper persons. It is a red herring. It can be side-stepped by the appointment of a different, more palatable figurehead. The real grounds and the real decision belong to the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt. He had originally stated that he was minded to refer the matter to the Competition Commission. News Corp then gave certain assurances. When assessing those assurances he stated:
“Some respondents also argued that News Corp could not be relied upon to abide by the requirements set out in the undertakings, citing previous guarantees and assurances given by News in the past, and the current phone hacking allegations against The News of the World. I have taken the view that News have offered serious undertakings and discussed them in good faith… whilst the phone hacking allegations are very serious they were not material to my consideration.“
Those assurances are still under consideration. In the light of recent revelations his position on their validity is untenable. Any assurances given by that organisation are not worth the smudgy, cheap paper they are printed on.
Rupert Murdoch took a massive risk yesterday. He needed to create some storm defences. He cynically decided to place them at a level where the blameless would be swept away and the culpable would be protected. His gamble was calculated to prevent cross-contamination of his other brands and, most crucially, to keep the proposed BSkyB takeover dry. I think he has failed in two significant ways:
Firstly, he has created an army of as many as 200 disgruntled whistle-blowers. The hope that not a single editor or journalist will have come across a document or email which implicates those responsible is naive. Watch out for leak after leak and revelation after revelation.
Secondly, he has removed the physical target for the public’s anger, without removing the guilty parties. The inevitable result is that the public’s anger will be directed upwards to News International – the organisation which now seeks to shelter the guilty. And they are guilty. Which ever way one looks at the matter they are guilty. At best they are guilty of gross incompetence – if one were to accept their ludicrous argument that they had no idea of the systemic immoral and illegal practices which took place under their watchful eye. At worst, they are the source of the infection.
And when I talk about “the guilty”, I very much include our glorious Prime Minister. All evidence points to Cameron having made a pre-election deal with Murdoch. Granted this evidence is circumstantial. But then again an apple falling from a tree is only circumstantial evidence of gravity. Make up your own mind:
As Leader of the Opposition he flew to a Greek island and met with Murdoch. Immediately afterwards he started announcing a variety of policies beneficial to the mogul’s interests, including downsizing OfCom and abolishing the BBC Trust. News Corp then delayed launching their takeover bid until a change of government. The moment Cameron was in office, Murdoch was one of the first people he saw at number 10. As recently as this spring he wrote columns for the News of The World, condemning the evils of regulation. As recently as a month ago he made a private speech at Murdoch’s Headquarters. As recently as Wednesday’s PMQs he stood by his decision to hire the beleaguered Andy Coulson as his PR guru. He also refused to call for the resignation of his horse-riding partner and gracious dinner hostess, Rebekah Brooks (aka Wade).
Rebekah… Like the similarly named heroine of the Daphne du Maurier novel and the Hitchcock film adaptation, her presence always felt – causing fire, destruction and mischief – but never actually there. Never actually at fault, it seems. During the Milly Dowler disappearance, and the hacking of her phone, she was apparently away. That’s right. The biggest story, the front-page story of that and many more weeks and the editor of the paper did not communicate with the employees working on it. Nothing odd about that. She was also away for the two weeks following the murders of the Soham girls. Apparently. She also knew nothing about payments to the police. Even though she said she did in front of the Parliamentary Committee, before Mrs Danvers steps in to “correct her”.
I believe, that the News of the World hacking scandal is the best thing that could have happened to the media sector in the UK; a truly serendipitous event. If we learn lessons from it, there is no doubt in my mind that this country will be better and freer. But we must learn the right lessons.
The truth is Rupert Murdoch’s empire is a product of our times; a Thatcherite dream of entrepreneurship. Capitalism is a primarily male construct and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is preoccupied with size. What the last few days prove is something that a significant and growing school of political and economic science has been arguing: size presents opportunities for efficiencies and economies of scale and scope, up to a point. Beyond that point it produces crude oil cartels that price-fix; banks that are too big to fail; corporations that hoard food securities to the detriment of the starving; telecom giants that refuse to pay tax; media conglomerates which bribe officials for information and openly state that they control the outcomes of elections. In short, entities so large as to think they can operate outside ordinary ethical and legal constraints.
It is up to us to stop them. And the biggest, the most gloriously positive lesson of the last few days is this: With a few gutsy politicians like Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, a few driven journalists, a few doggedly determined bloggers and a public that is sick to the back teeth of being treated like idiots, we can.