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An Autopsy of The News of The World Affair

July 8, 2011

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.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2011 7:17 am

    This is the best you’ve written. So much truth in the introspection, although I’d say I have more sympathy for the 200. In fact, those being let go from NotW have made me feel untold levels of disgust, guilt & depression. There is no doubt that the mob which we all contributed led to this decision but the real kicker that sticks in my throat is we’ve helped Rupert, not hindered him.

    The Sun moving to 7 days is something I believe News International have wanted for quite some time, but resisted due to the history of NotW. Having the Sun’s readership split between two brands instantly dilutes the brand power of both. Making a 7 day Sun instantly gives NI more control over a single, concentrated brand and unites a readership under one umbrella. I imagine there’s a hope. That weekday redership will increase as the Sunday readers bleed through.

    But, worst of all, Murdoch is doing this far cheaper than he did at NotW. Only editorial staff are losing their job, the commercial staff are staying on. He’s streamlined & cut content costs for the whole line. He’s not cut off a rotten limb, but taken this incident & cynically used it to advance plans that were previously impossible. The fact that the fire seems to be contained only in the NotW seems to show this. Coulson & Wade/Brooks both were promoted to the Sun’s editorship-can we honestly believe that they dropped hacking practices when they moved?

    It’s cynical, it’s disgusting, it’s inhuman what NI have done. They have cut 200 jobs to profit from their illegal & deplorable practices. What hurts the most is that we were all conspirators to this corporate murder where the workers were the true victims.

  2. John Souter permalink
    July 8, 2011 8:15 am

    Murdoch has stated there are nine major news corporations in the world; he reckons there should only be four and his News Corp will be one of them.

    With that in mind, the sacrifice of the Screws of the World as a sop for gaining control over B Sky B is a no brainer. Newspapers genererally are already struggling against the capabilities of digital to feed the bewidered herd with their daily slops of inane propaganda and the sublime irony is that the same bewildered herd willingly pay for the privilige either by buying the papers or suscribing to BSkyB.

    So the real answer here might be in not reaching for your pockets.

    That said, there is in the latest revelations on hacking on the families of soldiers a real example of hypocrisy in the attitude of our self righteous politicians. In as much as the decry the intrusion into the family grief yet far less grief would have to be endured if they hadn’t sent them to die in the first place.

    If the rag in question had any rightfull place in our society that is the sort of news and views it should have been reporting and helping to prevent.

  3. Clear Voice permalink
    July 8, 2011 8:19 am

    Well said. Can I suggest people have a look at this: and contact their MP to mobilise resistance to the BskyB deal?

    Whatever Cameron is up to, our elected members need to nail their colours to the mast and we the electorate ought to hold them to account.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. jon permalink
    July 8, 2011 10:58 am

    Very well written, and very important points made. I agree that this is the time to press for reform of media regulation: this is probably the best opportunity we will have.

  5. July 8, 2011 11:15 am

    no idea you could write so lucidly OR THINK so clearly..bravo on this piece, & best luck w/ the ending optimism..enemies such as Cameron & Wade NEED the Final Solution they propose we accept..they are not of humanity..they are swine in human form

  6. nick james permalink
    July 8, 2011 12:49 pm

    Once again, brilliant. Thank you.

  7. wulfhound permalink
    July 8, 2011 6:45 pm

    Great piece although found the gender reference a little jarring. Capitalism is preoccupied with size because public companies are legally required to maximize shareholder value, to make such a direct causal link to gender strikes me as glib.

    • Robert permalink
      July 10, 2011 8:22 am

      I thought that companies were required to operate according to the goals and rules defined in their articles of incorporation – which for many might be to maximise shareholder value, but doesn’t need to be – legally – such as the case where the same corporate legal framework is used to construct not-for-profit organisations.

  8. rob McD permalink
    July 8, 2011 7:45 pm

    Absolutely, spot on.

    It is painful just thinking about it, that these grubby little parasites were listening into the frantic, private and heart breaking personal calls of the poor Dowler family, 7/7 families and the families of our fallen heroes. It is beyond comprehension. There are no words which they can reply upon to excuse their actions. Right minded people should turn their backs on these perpetrators whenever they walk into a room. When exposed, they can languish in geol along side the murderers, rapists (sorry, they’ve all been let out by Dave) and paedophiles. They deserve no better.

    You are absolutely right, this runs far deeper than just a few bad apples. This runs to the core of Government, with their grubby and cosy relationships with big business, big finance and big media. It is a cancer which is destroying our democracy.

    Your Greek blog highlights this perfectly. The power of corporate business and finance is out of control, coupled with the remarkable ability and propensity of our elected Members of Parliament to continue to engineer outcomes in favour of the rich few rather than the majority is a sign that Britain is still broken. And Airbrush Dave, Gromit Miliband and their Duckhouse parties are not the people I trust to mend it, certainly not now.

    I have been simply staggered that a Prime Minister of Great Britain, out of fear, feels he needs to kowtow to and seeks out the favour and permission of a foreign alien to such an extent that it is the foreigner that appears to be controlling our country and democracy. There is something seriously wrong here.

    Mr Cameron and his party are now as damaged and tainted as the CEO of News International. We need a fundamental shift of power in this country. A thousand years ago at a place called Runnymede the people stood up to a tyrant king. That time has come again.

  9. Kristen McHugh permalink
    July 8, 2011 11:54 pm

    The single image that keeps popping into my head, is Murdoch spouting, “Let them eat cake.” (Granted, that may never have been said by the lady in question, but, you see my point.) From the US, to the UK, to Greece, to. . . the corporate aristocracy has replaced the nobility in wealth, influence, and to be frank, the ability to treat human beings as chess pieces on a board. Perhaps a better metaphor would be of two cauldrons, each set over a fire. The one in Europe is a much more concentrated flame, in the US it’s still a low, flickering thing. Things are going to boil over on both continents much more quickly than Murdoch or any of his political puppets think they will. They are doing so already, in Europe.
    Having a finely developed sense of schadenfreude comes in handy these days. Then again, I imagine the citizens of France felt that way in 1789. It’s such a shame that nobody studies history these days.

  10. Bert Teekman permalink
    July 9, 2011 10:57 am

    Excellent piece of writing. The press as the Fourth Estate has always been powerful and influential, but when good journalism turns into gutter journalism, and when a critical perspective is exchanged for gossip news takes on a different meaning. Mergers and take overs has resulted in a single voice that manipulates the masses for the benefits of few. Let this be the first step in the downfall of the empire.

  11. Simon S permalink
    July 9, 2011 3:00 pm

    Great read. If your aim was to inspire others to take a greater interest in the things that really matter, IT WORKED!

  12. July 10, 2011 4:10 pm

    This scandal highlights the problems with unregulated capitalism. Over the past 3 years we’ve seen many of our key institutions fail as a result of greed and inability to control themselves. Weak Governments and regulators have become captured to feed the pockets of investors and oligarchs.

    I find it baffling that in America (which lets face it, is a system of capitalism the UK in particular has been hurtling towards in the past 20 years) anything that is remotely socialist or even slightly away from the ideological goals of the wealthy elite are labelled as ‘communist’ or worst, yet it was when the cold war was being ‘fought’ against the actual communists that we introduced the welfare state, achieved economic expansion in real economic performance (not fake financial success based on credit) and actually regulated our fundamental businesses.

  13. ann bennett permalink
    July 21, 2011 4:03 pm

    Thank you for your clarity and yes murdock has been a threat to free press for a decade ,and we on the left have been banging on about him for a long long time . I do hope this is the end of press monoplot and isnt now a good time for the labour party to launch its own paper?
    ann b


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