It’s rare that this blog tiptoes anywhere much further than the safe terrain of racecourse, music venue or holiday spot. Certainly not politics or business. But it’s hard to contain the urge for a sideswipe at the protagonists in the News of the World scandal, if only because the revelations unearth the dark heart of some enduring national ills.
It’s just over a week since the News of the World phone hacking story, which had been simmering away on the back-burner for years, finally boiled over and scalded all those who had got too close. Every day brings yet more unraveling of a web so dense it makes a Dan Brown novel look like jackanory. Murder victims, families of terrorist victims, war heroes, 10 Downing Street and big business have all been dragged in.
There are several themes running through these amazing events. Any one of them alone is more unsavoury than the soap flavoured crisps I’ve just bought from Waitrose (masquerading as Hairy Bikers’ tagine flavour chips with olives and lime. Bad.) Taken together they are a desperate indictment of a poisoned system.
Right at the top of the shop is the political kowtowing to News International. Murdoch’s vile empire has exerted such influence over politicians that successive Governments have been only too eager to cosy up and turn a blind eye to manipulation, corruption and lies. Murdoch’s ruthless tactics have enabled him to buy politicians’ favour through the worst kind of carrot and stick: populist appeal of his red-tops that can make or break elections coupled with the ability to wreck lives and careers through scum-bag low-life exposes and entrapments.
Hugh Grant did a sterling job on Question Time last week, taking on the pompous and self-serving John Gaunt amongst others, and in the process highlighting how vicious News International’s reprisals can be: the MP on the Culture Select Committee who asked Rebekah Brooks about payments to the police was soon the victim of NotW investigative journalism and publicly outed as a gay man.
This relationship and these tactics have been underpinned for many years by the incessant pursuit of celebrities, royalty, sportsmen, businesses, criminals and victims to dig up stories that News International will tell you are in the public interest. Hardly. For every one story of legitimate public value that Murdoch’s rags have broken (even the Fake-Sheik stuff was all about entrapment) there are a dozen that peddle a line in muck-raking, kiss-and-tell and vacuous celebrity culture. Where’s the balance? As Steve Coogan said on Newsnight, “Hitler liked dogs”, his meaning clear: does one positive act outweigh an avalanche of evil?
As a nation, we’ve never had the stomach to tackle that head on. There’s a certain amount of truth in Fleet Street’s assertion that this is “giving the public what they want”. There’s no doubt about the nation’s love of tittle-tattle and sensationalist nonsense. I’ll put my hand up to that, for sure. Even the early days of the phone hacking story didn’t rattle too many cages when it was believed to be confined only to celebrities and politicians who “court the media”.
But the more sinister side of Murdoch’s gutter journalism has always extended well beyond celebrities. News International has shamefully magnified a warped sense of public interest to invade privacy, jeopardise trials, fabricate stories, misrepresent views and destroy lives. All to sell newspapers.
We always knew that. But now we know how. And that’s the real sickener. We now know just how far journalists and newspaper publishers are prepared to go to get a story.
I’ve heard a few defensive journos argue (step forward the arrogant Paul McMullen) that emotion is running away with the nation and claim and that the freedom of the press is at stake here. That is laughable. Look what an unaccountable press corps does when left to its own debased devices. Regulation is a fact for all aspects of public life, TV and radio included, and needs to properly apply to Fleet Street too. The toothless Press Complaints Commission has been another victim of a political and journalistic protective collusion.
Wrapped up in this filthy, amoral world we now see, like scales falling from our eyes, the grubby paw prints of the Met Police all over a botched, half-hearted attempt to investigate those phone hacking allegations. Allegations that extended to 11,000 pages of evidence that the self-styled Yates of the Yard chose to ignore in less than one day of deliberating. He claims manpower issues prevented a full-scale investigation in the face of counter-terrorism pressures. Maybe. And, no doubt, a gentle lean from a couple of News International’s more thick-set lawyers as well. Just in case the Yard’s incompetence could not be relied upon.
Which brings my rant back to the political fallout. Ed Miliband has made all the running so far. He has said what his party and the rest should have said years ago, but were too scared to. Only now with the tide of public opinion behind them is there the confidence to decry the actions of Murdoch’s empire with outright disgust, to call for Rebekah Brook’s resignation and to demand that News Corporation do not gain outright ownership of BSkyB.
Cameron is in the mire up to his eyeballs. Never can a media appointment have looked so wrong as that of Andy Coulson. Although I can accept that Cameron made the job offer in good faith, “a second chance”, this still amounts to a howling gale of a misjudgement. And there are unanswered questions. Why did Cameron not listen to the advice of his head of strategy, Steve Hilton, and others who warned about Coulson’s murky past.
Polly Toynbee in The Guardian last week is realistic about what standing up to Murdoch now might mean later:
“Don't imagine this act of defiance will be painless or without consequence. Already a senior Miliband aide tells me they received a "very hostile" threat, not veiled at all, from a News International journalist warning: "You have made it personal about Rebekah, so we'll make it personal about you." Braggadocio maybe, but as the recipient of the threat said: "That's how they operate." And it can be terrifying. Bugging, blagging and Benji the Binman send shudders down many a spine. The spell is broken, but the terror may not be over.”
So here we are in the reaction phase. Two inquiries have been announced: one covering both the phone hacking at News of the World and press regulation and another into the earlier failed police investigations. They will start after the now full-blown police investigation has been completed.
And what of News Corporation in all this? The Murdoch clan continues to move with characteristic ruthlessness:
- Closing the News of the World to lance the boil and cast doubt on what information (potentially in the public interest – how ironic) it will be required to keep;
- Feeding Coulson to the dogs by unearthing incriminating evidence;
- Reportedly destroying thousands of e-mails dating back to Brooks' reign as Editor;
- Dropping Sky News independence guarantees thus forcing the Competition Commission to review the BSkyB take over on grounds only of plurality and not the ‘fit and proper person’ test.
Meanwhile shares in the corporation continue to hemorrhage and there is a debate in the House of Commons tomorrow that may change the terms of the BSkyB takeover once and for all. And I hear today that Murdochs Snr and Jnr, plus Brooks have been summoned to give evidence to the Culture Select Committee again. Brace yourselves for a few more Machiavellian manouevres.
If this really is a watershed moment then it means we begin to understand the real price we pay for garbage sensationalism, celebrity culture and vacuous tittle-tattle; it means we demand an end to fear and smear tabloid power; and it means we take apart the sycophantic buddying of press and politics.
Observers have also recognized a watershed in the way this story broke and developed. Social media has had a massive role to play, particularly in encouraging a landslide of advertisers to pull out of News of the World, according to analysis by the We Are Social website. Twittersphere has been buzzing with commentary, conversations and news delivered faster and more succinctly than any other medium. John Prescott has been having an absolute field day and Alastair Campbell wades in with views that would suggest a clear conscious, even though it can’t possibly be!
But, ending on a positive note, this nicely demonstrates the vitality, relevance and mass appeal of a medium that Murdoch can’t yet get his grizzly, tainted mits on. Long live social media!