Anthony Barnett argues that the mess that Jeremy Hunt wishes to see sorted out is the very fusion of politicians, journalists and media owners that govern us – the political class.
A pharaoh who cast his shadow over us for 30 years has fallen. His empire still functions. A grovelling PR apology of crocodile proportions may restore some of his influence. But the kind of power Rupert Murdoch exercised has been broken. We breathe a freer air in Britain. It is so surprising, it is hard to believe.
Here are some reflections on the culture Murdoch personified and the system of power he helped shape and has left behind in the UK.
Personally, Murdoch deserves his humiliation given the way he has treated others. Politically, to see the most powerful figure in British politics (a man able to enter Downing Street by the back door for secret meetings at will for over thirty years) lose his power is great for democracy and liberty. Economically, a ruthless advocate of the market system, an opponent of regulation and the welfare state, Rupert’s son James, sees his pivotal position being whisked from under him.
My delight in all this is tempered by a question. Is the speed of the Murdoch’s disgrace evidence of the strength, vitality and health of democracy in Britain or is it a confirmation of its crumbling weakness and accompanying hysteria? If the answer is a combination of both how do we ensure that the former predominates over the latter?
Murdoch traded on fear. He and his papers always sensed a weak point and were unscrupulous in exploiting it for the worse. He favoured war, polarisation, division, greed and sexism because they sold papers and gave him leverage.
We all knew about his hacking of celebrities, paying the police and intimidating MPs, threatening to work over their private lives if they tried to hold News International to account. We knew this especially thanks to the Guardian, its editor Alan Rusbridger who supported the investigations and Nick Davies, its key reporter, whose book Flat Earth News maps the wider degeneration of contemporary journalism. Yet many continued to buy News International papers while those who spoke out against them were ghettoised. From the police to the BBC, critical stories were scorned, dismissed as merely the Guardian/Observer trying to ‘get at’ a man whose power represented the accepted status quo. The prime minister has just told us that he was not in fact explicitly warned against taking his Director of Communications into Downing Street – a man who oversaw “a flourishing criminal conspiracy” when he was Editor of the News of the World – because, as he told the House of Commons, the information had already “been published in the Guardian”. So that doesn’t count then. Why, it might equally have appeared in that organ of truthfulness Private Eye!
I am compressing things here, which I’ll unpack when we come to the Prime Minister who should clearly resign. One of the reasons for David Cameron finally throwing the book at Murdoch is an attempt to save his own skin.
Cameron knew. We all knew. And yet much of the public and the political class continued to buy his papers and take them seriously. Murdoch and his employees took this for public as well as official support – or at least active permission for the way they behaved. It turns out to have been cowed acceptance.
Was it as simple as that? This is the interpretation offered by Tim Garton Ash in his Guardian column. He describes the appalling influence of News International on politicians of all parties and the shocking spinelessness of the police and concludes “the most plausible explanation boils down to fear”. Now, he continues, we are putting the “putrid quagmire” behind us and “the future looks brighter”. Out of this, “one of the most important crises in the British political system”, we can put in place a new settlement between politics and the media.
The problem with this analysis is that it turns all those who were running the state, the political parties, the police, the civil service, almost all MPs and the governments of the day, into the intimidated victims of News International. Murdoch’s dark empire frightened and suborned them into submission.
While I agree we are witnessing a crisis and a welcome democratic opportunity, this isn’t a plausible explanation of what has happened.
Murdoch’s dynamic hypocrisy
Murdoch is a warmonger. He is a man who sells wars. He learnt the profits of war in the Falkland conflict in 1982 and this bonded him to Margaret Thatcher. He applied this at a world level after 9/11. Not one of his 130 odd editors around the globe opposed the invasion of Iraq. He formed a triumvirate with Bush and Blair to back the invasion. Had his media been genuinely investigative (as is now claimed for News of the World) they’d have exposed the lies and disinformation in the lead up to Iraq. Instead, at Fox News especially, he helped create and disseminate them.
One of the profits of wartime alliance with leaders is their gratitude and access to official license. Although a leading advocate of market fundamentalism and hostility to state regulation, Murdoch was a welfare monopolist. His greatest skill was fixing deals with government, permitting him a market advantage.
This was the malevolent dishonesty at the heart of Murdochism. He was a close ally of state power who advocated hostility towards it. Worse, he was an ally of the most baleful and threatening aspects of state power, its police and security and the database state, while he attacked its best aspects, regulation, welfare, investment in and defence of the public interest.
His close relationship to power allowed his media to help ‘create reality’. This reinforced a belief that he was above the law. Being above the law is worse – more frightening and lethal – than being merely criminal. It means your crimes do not need to be secret and you can get away with them (see also Tony Blair). Armed criminals do not threaten the state’s monopoly of coercion. A mafia does.
Buying police was an aspect of this and police corruption is a huge part of the story in London. It is unlikely that the details will come out as much as they should. The British way of dealing with police corruption, if it can, is to retire the officers concerned and move on. The relationship of News International to the employment of criminals and ex-criminals was actively connived in by the police (and apparently also elements in the secret service). This is another example of News International double-standards. When it supported ‘our boys in blue’ its readers did not think this meant they were corrupting them.
Page three in the Sun is a daily example of Murdoch’s double standards. The supposed advocate of family values he was undermining them in the name of “good, clean fun” – ironically, what he hid behind the frankness of topless nudity was a use of women that was anything but honest.
In none of this, however, can it be said that he acted alone. His empire was not that of a tyrant built by conquest. In Britain he was more the agent of an Anglo-American elite than its master. In the UK in the 1970s they wanted to secure the newly oil-rich archipelago for finance-dominated globalisation and this meant breaking Britain’s post-war welfare state and its consensus politics. Murdoch was a crucial part of this. But he was a hired-hand, an energetic foreigner with few if any scruples, used to blast apart the ranks of a lazy, cosy elite and over-trade-unionised working classes.
Too much power
This influenced British opinion and its politics, including how people voted. I don’t agree with David Elstein that the influence of Murdoch’s papers didn’t have electoral outcomes. Murdoch’s press was a constant, shaping cultural pressure, direct and indirect. Even if mechanically assessing voting intentions is unable to measure this, priorities were set and political agendas shaped (just as I think the BBC influences voters).
Where I agree with Elstein is that the creation of satellite television was a creative move that increased plurality and quality competition. Opposition to the total takeover of BSkyB stemmed from fear that his monopolising this success would give his newspaper holdings an advantage, by combining a pay wall and cross-media integration into the BSkyB charging system. Probably, Murdoch was more interested in taking a wholly owned BSkyB out of the UK’s tax jurisdiction. And, of course, there was its potential Foxisation.
The battle over this became a symbol of a larger fightback over Murdoch’s influence within the oppressive, dehumanisation project of commercial media. He came to personify this. Ironically, the celebrity culture that he encouraged made him the bogyman for those who scorned it. Yet given his power and his son’s beliefs, the precautionary principle seemed more than reasonable to me. I opposed the BSkyB takeover as a citizen, which is why I argued, as soon as the Dowler revelation broke, that it was the Murdochs themselves, not their editors, who should be removed. Henry Porter put it simply and rightly on the Today programme. Murdoch had too much power and ought to have less, not more.
There is a kind of Masonic expertise amongst those who understand the intricacies of broadcasting law and its oversight and regulation, what this permits and doesn’t, which suggested a more nuanced view. But for all his brilliance and daring as a media mogul, Murdoch was a man who stood for bad things. That was the basis for my opposition to him. The feeling is strongly reinforced by James Murdoch. Thirty years of Rupert expanding his influence was bad enough. The prospect of a successful dynastic transition, with James in the saddle riding $2billion plus profits a year and shaping his media to his agenda was intolerable.
It feels strange, as if it is a hostage to fortune, to write about their power in the past tense.
The source of Murdoch’s power over Britain
Though hardly original or limited to him, Murdoch’s populism and celebration of the market were popular. They provided a genuine political attraction in a snobbish country without an honest constitution, where access to political power was an establishment game that relied on norms of paternalism and gentlemen’s rules.
Those who trade in fear live off the weakness of others. In the UK this informal, elitist constitution of ours while lauded as strong because flexible is in fact a weakness. Murdoch joined with Thatcher in exploiting its informality to expand their power and in the process further hollowed out its self-belief. They began to dismantle the old regime without any desire to replace it by anything other than themselves, the less regulated the better. The process continued under Tony Blair.
In 1945 the ‘absolute sovereignty of parliament’ meant the sovereignty of a genuine system: a politically interested monarch, a wealthy landed aristocracy in the House of Lords, a Commons that believed in itself that was voted in by mass-based parties, an independent civil service (without special advisors), the Church of England, and the last of empire. It was financially bust and had to be propped up by Marshall aid. But it had been re-forged by wartime Churchillism into a powerful system of consent.
Today it is easy for us to see the closed and undemocratic nature of its elitism and forget how deeply its support penetrated the population, thanks to trade unions, a shared wartime experience and commitment to the creation of a welfare state and improving living standards. When this political edifice tottered in the crisis years of the seventies it needed an honest constitutional democracy to replace its closed shops with open associations that could have preserved its social democratic dynamism.
Instead, we had Thatcher. She shattered the closed shops, it should not be forgotten, of both the City of London and the union, with a free market ideology for which Murdoch was the foremost media propagandist (he had bought the News of the World in 1969 and the Sun in 1970, she enabled him to acquire the Times and Sunday Times in 1981). Their successful assault was permitted by the lack of constitutional safeguards, a lack they then preserved. This is why his papers are ferocious opponents of constitutional reform. The high point of the process came in 2003 when the absolute sovereignty of parliament became the absolute sovereignty of Tony Blair. Except that Blair needed Murdoch to achieve it.
The importance of this for the UK’s political culture may be hard to grasp, so here is an example to illustrate the wider point. In his sycophantic biography of Murdoch, William Shawcross asks the media mogul, known to be privately a republican, about the monarchy. Murdoch’s answer is revealing. He says, I am summarising from memory: “if you want to preserve such an obvious weakness that is fine by me”. It was like a bully praising an opponent for his cowardice. “Please keep your elitist, indefensible system as this means you will find it all the harder to regulate and govern me!” (Only he didn’t say “please”.)
From the eighties onwards the clash between Murdoch-Thatcher-and-Blair and the traditional British Establishment was a conflict between two non-democratic forces. The mandarin elite of the old regime was undermined by the grasping opportunism of the global capitalism Murdoch represented. A decisive section of the ambitious middle and upper classes preferred the modernisation Murdoch offered to the restrictions of the old regime. Together the rising, media-savvy politicians, policy advisors, PR consultants along with editors and proprietors formed a ‘political class’ that pushed aside the old establishment. But there was a refreshing aspect to this. It did raise people’s game. It did bring wealth and growth with it, however unbalanced and unequal. Britain was in a crisis in the 1970s. It badly did (and still does) need to change (but not in the way Murdoch advocated). It remains appallingly elitist.
It is not the case that a good, honourable system was tyrannised over by an incoming authoritarian. A decayed, elite system that refused to democratise itself embraced modernisation from outside to preserve its privilege.
The fire in the firestorm
The kind of change the UK needs is a genuinely popular, democratic politics that has a new sense of the public interest, one that is not BBC-Reithian and top down.
But is this what is happening? The New York Times (locked in deadly competition with Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal) declared that a ‘British Spring’ was under way – its democratic breezes and fresh social media campaigns lifting fear over Westminster as it was cleansed of Wapping’s sinister influence.
If this is a Tahrir Square moment, where are the people in the square? The British public, I would argue, did play a decisive yet ghostlike role in all this. The moment the Guardian published the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked was indeed a tipping point. As the story began to roll, everyone knew that the game had changed. The family of a murdered girl had been given false hope that she was alive thanks to the heartless indifference of a News of the World hired hand.
Had the political leaders stood together and defended Murdoch in the way he had come to expect, Parliament Square would have been seized by a crowd exponentially larger than the 30,000 young people who stormed it in December last year.
It is an irony of our post-modern times. Industrial-scale callousness of the kind that led to the Dowler hack has been going on since the popular press was invented. Historically, the wealthy and important were treated with deference while the poor were punished because as victims they deserved what they got. Today – and when did this happen? – if you are a leading member of society, powerful, rich or a celebrity, then you are ‘fair game’ for maltreatment. It is acceptable to hack the phones of top people or steal and publish their medical records – good luck to you mate! But if you hurt the feelings of the poor and innocent you have to go to jail.
Call me egalitarian but I find this peculiar. What has been found utterly intolerable and created mass revulsion is the prospect of regular people being worked over like celebrities by the tabloids. Even though most of us are taught that we would rather like to be a celebrity. The peculiarity is a delight: Murdoch was brought down thanks to his own populism.
But what was the nature of the explosion, given the absence of the masses in any physical sense as the Wapping Bastille crumbled?
Here is how the Prime Minister experienced the pressure after a week of attempting to minimise the whole affair, do what he could to protect Murdoch and limit the damage to himself. On Wednesday 13 July he told the House of Commons:
We have to be clear about what is happening here. There is a firestorm, if you like, that is engulfing parts of the media, parts of the police and, indeed, our political system’s ability to respond. What we must do in the coming days and weeks is think above all of the victims, such as the Dowler family, who are watching this today, and make doubly sure that we get to the bottom of what happened and prosecute those who are guilty.
Later in the debate he repeated the phrase
What has happened here is a massive firestorm of allegations that have got worse and worse.
Of course it takes time to get these things right when you have this enormous firestorm going on, but I think that we have taken some major steps forward that will make a big difference.
Was it a firestorm of revelations and allegations that was toasting him, or a firestorm of popular revulsion and public opposition?
The adroitness of the British elite
This is where the British elite has not lost its adroitness. It has always governed with consent, working hard to try and make sure government was popular. The Victorians rightly saw this as being distinct from democracy, at a time when most of the population were not yet trusted with the vote. Now, however, opinion polls confirm that politicians as a class are staring into the abyss of almost complete lack of public trust.
In the expenses crisis of 2009, the politicians worked out how to put themselves at the head of the opposition to what they had been doing. It seemed to work. (There is an amusing John Cleese short where he plays a boss who concludes that he has to fire himself then gives himself another chance.) Now they did the same again. To a man and woman our MPs were aware of the baleful influence of News International better than any, yet took its calls. All of a sudden, with an ultra-quick exhalation of remorse, they unanimously supported a motion in Parliament against any expansion of Murdoch’s power, leading the revolution against themselves!
Two things were going on when the politicians turned themselves into the voice of the public’s revulsion at the lawlessness of News International, an amorality they had connived in for years.
On the one hand a genuine and welcome shift in the balance of power is taking place, as unaccountable might is brought to book and the intimate collusion of the executive and the media is to some degree prised apart. When the parliamentary expenses crisis was at its height, Graham Allen MP wrote a powerful complaint. He protested that the government and the media were ganging up in a collusive tango against Parliament itself, damaging any real hope of democracy in the process. The peccadilloes and permissiveness of backbenchers who were on the make had in fact originally been inspired by an executive hoping to make them more submissive. The Telegraph-led assault against, far from leading to a strengthening of the independence of MPs, had happened upon new forms of taming them and a further weakening of parliament. In this way a justified exposure led to a ‘clean up’ that in fact increased centralisation and further weakened parliamentary democracy in the UK.
This analysis places the collaboration between the executive (ministers and civil servants) and privately owned media at the centre of the state: the very collaboration that has been set back, at least momentarily, by the assault unleashed upon the Murdoch empire. As a result, we are becoming freer, and the polity more law-abiding and less corrupt, especially thanks to a clearer shared understanding of how bad things were. It may be relative but it is a wonderful improvement. How was it achieved?
Ed Miliband played a pivotal role. Casting aside the advice of caution, he spoke for himself and broke the collusion of party power with Murdoch’s influence. In doing so he spoke to and for the country for the first time since becoming his party’s leader. He thus became prime-ministerial at a stroke (a great stroke). It is difficult to think of a moment when the leader of the opposition so clearly led the way in an issue of such importance.
To everyone’s astonishment he did the right thing! With the public clearly taking his side he had momentum and the initiative. Also, he clearly enjoyed it and was saying what he meant. And he was clean. At the end of June he was seen to be a loser, unable to make his mark. The media was especially hostile to him because he had not been their candidate. The Blairite machine had stitched up the papers and TV into supporting David Miliband. The arrogance of the media, led by boys and girls from News International, ilies in its conviction that it is the voice of the people. This means it can decide who is electable, as it did with Blair and Cameron. Suddenly, Miliband’s disadvantage in this respect came to his aid: it meant that he could lead the demand to have the Augean stables of British power swept clean.
Yet the sweeper remains a united House of Commons and a judicial inquiry. As if the cattle themselves can clear away thirty years of their own deposits. Anything to head off the mighty Hercules of an angry people!
Ed Miliband, celebrity and the net
Three things have contributed to Miliband’s crushing defeat of Murdoch. First, his leadership was on the edge of extinction. Tony Blair had launched a devastating, serpentine assault upon him – naturally enough in the Sun. The former leader and his followers seem to have decided they had to oust Ed Miliband now, if his replacement was to have any chance of unifying the party after a bruising fight and winning an election in 2015. Miliband’s only hope of defeating his opponents, who included most Labour MPs, was to show that he could win voter endorsement, outsmart Cameron, and open up the Labour Party to a new generation of support that would bring an expanded, growing party behind him. All this seemed quite beyond him when he made a totally disastrous response to the one-day strike by public sector workers the previous week (see this account by Dan Hancox). Young newcomers who had joined Labour to stop the Coalition were tearing up their party cards and posting images of this online.
With nothing to lose, Miliband wanted to say what he really thought about the behaviour of the Murdoch machine and risk becoming its enemy. He consulted with his team on Tuesday 5 July, the day after the Dowler revelations. Promptly dubbed the “sod it” meeting, with nothing to lose he spoke out and became his own man.
This may only have happened because his back was up against the wall, but from the wall’s side there were two forces pushing him forward. The full-spectrum dominance of the tabloid media is no longer the only voice in town when it came to summoning up what is called popular opinion. Two new forms of influence have emerged over the last twenty years. Both existed in a more confined analogue form before then, but are now turbo-driven by digital communication and the internet. They are ‘celebrity’ and viral campaigns.
Celebrity is now a form of power. An issue can languish on the margins – or be something the Guardian ‘bangs on’ about – and then be catapulted to prominence by celebrity advocacy. A well-chosen celebrity bestows ‘sex-appeal’ on the most unlikely cause, creates attention, ends specialist status and ensures that ‘everyone’ is talking about whatever it is. Politicians then compete to show they are ‘with it’ for fear of being shown-up as being ‘without it’ by their opponents. Like all forms of volatile power, celebrity endorsement can blow up in your face or humiliate everyone by turning into a damp squib. So-called “reality” television has created celebrity-for-itself, those famous for being famous (and selling newspapers and magazines) of whom many of us have never heard. Their support can be fatal for a cause. Meanwhile other celebrities have to some degree earned their fame, if not their notoriety. They can have a genuine voice provided they also have authority to speak for the cause in question.
An example of this kind of celebrity power in the UK was Joanna Lumley’s campaign to allow Ghurkhas who had risked their lives for Britain to come and live here. She was brilliantly successful, as well as being funny and attractive, because her father had been an officer in the 6th Gurkha Rifles. It was a cause that mattered to her personally. Thus her use of her stardust was genuine not contrived. It meant hers was not just a celebrity endorsement, as in an advert: in this campaign she was also a ‘real person’, not a contrived figure of public relations. The mixture of authenticity, public recognition and an attractive appearance and personality is compelling, drawing in millions to consider a call or an argument they’d otherwise have ignored.
This was the mixture that celebrities like Jemima Kahn and Hugh Grant brought to the lobby against hacking. In a striking Newsnight encounter Grant told an executive from the Times that far from his sister paper’s bad behaviour being “in the past” as he claimed, the Sun had recently acquired and published Grant’s own private medical records. Everyone was astonished and appalled. Grant could no longer be scorned as merely publicity-seeking in his support for the campaign.
So Miliband had effective celebrity on his side. It’s a new form of top-down populism that has escaped the control of the tabloids who created it and in this case celebrity served democracy. For sure it is ambiguous and self-interested, but it has brought a new force into the equations of power.
In addition to gathering celebrity support, Miliband’s stand echoed the call of online campaigns by Avaaz globally, which called for an end to “Murdoch’s criminal empire”, and 38Degrees in the UK. Both had memberships who wanted to blow the whistle of the web against News International. Thousands upon thousands of messages poured in, not least to MPs from people in their constituencies, and companies were called upon to boycott News of the World. Paul Mason of Newsnight asked if the network had defeated the hierarchy. The answer is “yes, in part”. As with celebrity power, the monopoly of traditional politics is being prised open and Miliband finally found himself on the upside of the energy.
Once he went for broke the firestorm became unstoppable. He became the leader of the ‘political class’ which then put itself at the forefront of the mass outrage against the way the political class had behaved.
The ‘Political Class’
I say ‘political class’. As the nature of political power in London reshaped itself in the hacking crisis, this term went live in a novel way. It was introduced as a concept by Peter Oborne in his book, ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’. In it he argues that the British aristocracy, industrial and middle classes, inspired by a Burkean ideal of public service, created in the 19th century an uncorrupt disinterested administrative class who could not be bribed or suborned, while being an MP was unpaid. Public service became a self-regulated, honourable calling at the heart of the Establishment. This ethic carried through the Second World War and into the 1970s, when a new process started. This got into its stride under Thatcher and came into its own under New Labour, which saw the rise of manipulative, corporate populism (Oborne is kind enough to credit me with this term I coined in 1999 to describe New Labour). The agent of this change was the rise of ‘the political class’, who are mostly Oxbridge-educated men recruited young into the circuits of political influence. Two things define this force. First, it seeks personal gain from public office. Second, it makes its career and its fortune from “a fusion between the media and political domains”. This analysis set Oborne at odds with the dominant narrative which misleadingly offers the public the picture of still honourable politicians harassed by a “feral” media (Tony Blair’s term) as the influential nether world of advisors and consultants is lost from sight. A critical figure in the formation of the new corruption was Rupert Murdoch, to whom Oborne dedicates a trenchant section.
After the book was published the term ‘political class’ moved into circulation, although usually by journalists contemptuously deploying it to describe politicians, as if they themselves were not part of it. On Friday July 8, in an interview with Kirsty Wark for Newsnight, Ed Miliband told her that the “whole political class” had got it wrong in its relationship with Murdoch. In effect he identified himself positively and professionally as a member of it. This was the first time I had heard the term used in this fashion, as an objective uncritical description of reality, a plain man’s substitute for the political elite. Implicitly, Miliband’s use included the media and certainly unelected advisors and the civil service within its ambit.
Miliband was making the language as well as the political weather. It didn’t take longer than a weekend for this to gain parliamentary recognition. Answering questions for the government in the debate on phone hacking and News International on Monday July 11, Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, the Media and Sport, said at one point, “We have all failed—politicians, journalists and media owners – and we must all work together to put the problem right”. And later, “In the last Parliament there were two Select Committee inquiries on the matter and two reports by the Information Commissioner stating that things were wrong and needed to be sorted out, but nothing happened. Let us hope that as a political class we are up to the challenge of sorting things out this time”.
Hunt’s use of the term is impeccable, combining politicians, journalists and media owners. But what he wishes for is impossible. The mess is the fact that we are governed by a fusion of politicians, journalists and media owners. They have come together in pursuit of the creation of public consent to policies which benefit them but are against the public interest.
What is needed is a Chris Wood style “grand correction” which, naturally, the political class is determined to prevent. One form of it has been advocated by Suzanne Moore to “bust open journalistic practice”, another by Dan Hind in his Return of the Public. It is the principle on which OurKingdom was initiated within openDemocracy. We need citizen government that opens up the political class to constitutional democracy. And maybe the only force that is able to do this is a networked politics.
Gordon Brown, David Cameron
It is a long way from here to there. Standing in our way is the political class itself, a vested interest dislocated from genuine political movements and public life. Gordon Brown entered the debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday to demonstrate what I mean. It was a graceless, rambling, self-pitying performance. Without a touch of remorse, Brown put himself forward, in a television interview as well, as a pure victim, a man and his family wronged by what he denounced as a “criminal-media nexus”. He didn’t mention that he had tried very hard to become a member of it himself (and permitted his own people to intrude on the private lives of others). Allison Pearson spelt it out in the Telegraph, “For Brown to complain about the invasion of “private grief” was like Faust moaning that someone had forged his signature on the pact with the Devil”. Tim Garton Ash accepts Brown’s presentation. I think it is evidence for Oborne’s thesis that the underlying nexus is the active, collusive twinning of politicians and proprietors who are in it together, while falsely presenting it as a fight to the death.
In order to justify himself and prove that his relationship with News International was not cosy, Brown read out from the advice he had received from the head of the civil service when he inquired as to whether he could call for a public inquiry into the News of the World – after News International had switched its support from Labour to the Tories. The answer came back that it was so close to the election it would look partisan and might fail if it was challenged in a judicial review. This, Brown implied, showed how the forces had ganged up against him.
But a simple response was available to him in the light of this wholly predictable advice. Brown could have made a call for a full-scale inquiry into the tabloid press part of Labour’s election manifesto. He could have taken the issue to the voters and challenged the tabloids to do their worst. We can now see that this could have won him political support and personal sympathy. Instead, he played the game. By intervening in the way he did this past week he is still playing the same game. We, the public, are again encouraged to be observers not players.
More ominously, his successor is still playing the game. As he entered Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister, David Cameron said, “I want a political system that people can trust and look up to once again”. Hah! I referred above to one of the warnings he was given not to take Andy Coulson into Downing Street as he had overseen a “flourishing criminal conspiracy”. It was in fact written by Peter Oborne who has been an acquaintance of Cameron for twenty years. True it was in the Observer and it is well worth re-reading it today. I posted about it at the time, in an article on the heart of the matter. If it had been arguably untrue, Coulson would have sued. It is inconceivable that the Tory leader was not aware of the seriousness of these charges in the run up to the election.
But pressed on the issue in his press conference on Friday July 9, Cameron said repeatedly that he had checked and, for example, “no one gave me any specific information. Obviously, I sought assurances, I received assurances, I commissioned a company to do a basic background check, but I’m not hiding from the decision I made.” But he was hiding. Because his next answer – “I sought some specific assurances but also some general assurances as you would expect. It was a series of conversations, a series of meetings we had after he resigned from the News of the World, before he came to work with me at Conservative Central Office and in the House of Commons.” – referred to the time he first employed Coulson four years ago, not the warnings against his taking Coulson with him into Number 10.
It is interesting to see how skilfully Cameron dissembles and wriggles, worth remembering when listening to future presentations of policy. Now it turns out that he had invited him to Chequers as a weekend friend even after he was forced to step out of Downing Street. This is a perfect example of the integration of media and politics that is coming apart. The Prime Minister now denounces in shocked terms the possibility that he has been lied to by Coulson, if with a touch more remorse than his predecessor Brown. In both cases they are seeking to scapegoat Murdoch and company for their own collusion.
A potentially awesome shift in the UK’s power structure is taking place if the role and influence of Murdoch’s newspapers is really undermined. When Thatcher introduced market fundamentalism into Britain, Murdoch was a key player in winning popular support for privatisation and undermining the unions. Now the Coalition, alongside their austerity programme are launching an unprecedented reconfiguration of the state, opening it up to corporate provision in the name of the Big Society, as Olly Huitson has summarised. The same day that Jeremy Hunt told parliament that “we the political class” should “sort things out”, the Prime Minister launched the Open Public Services White Paper, a classic of political class jargon dissected by Anna Coote. Without the influence of the Murdoch press, Cameron may find it hard to break the inevitable resistance to his double-sided campaign of austerity and marketisation.
At the same time, many in the media are also rubbing their hands with pleasure at the humiliation of a rival. In terms of the news, we are now left with a monopoly provider in the BBC. (see these graphs here, displayed on Conservative Home). Why is the BBC a danger? Well, for a start it permitted the creation of the database state. It never gave the Guardian’s coverage of the hacking case its due. If it had been left to the BBC, all the most egregious aspects of Murdoch’s power would have remained intact. It also is part of the circuit of the political class. We won’t be safe until there is competition and plurality within public service broadcasting – a case set out in open debate in the Public Service Broadcasting Forum. But for this to happen there needs to be a democratic ethic of public interest guiding the media that is not defined in terms of the market and efficiency. Des Freedman’s report of the utter incomprehension of broadcasters, from the BBC to Google, in the face of such a suggestion is a salutary warning that Murdochism will live on after Murdoch.