Meet the new boss ...
Rebekah Brooks has returned to the helm. William Kane welcomes her back
Last week, something quietly important happened in the British press. Rebekah Brooks replaced Mike Darcey as the CEO of News UK, the British tentacle of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire.
The significance of this move has hardly gone unnoticed. Brooks, in earlier times, was the individual closest to Murdoch within his business, with the exception of his blood relations. Yet, for a moment, that was all thrown into doubt. The revelation that journalists at the late and unlamented News of the World had hacked the voicemail of missing teenager MillyDowler, unwittingly giving police and family false hope that she was still alive, blew a simmering scandal wide open, and exposed rampant criminality in Murdoch newsrooms for the shabbiest of ends. News International CEO at the time, Brooks was eventually forced to resign, pocketing a cool £16 million payoff for her troubles.
In the four intervening years, there have been multiple police investigations, the Leveson inquiry, an overhaul of press regulation and the sensational trial that saw her acquitted, while former subordinate and lover Andy Coulson was sent down, on charges arising from the hacking scandal. The Murdoch operation survived, however; and it is as strong as it ever was. Bringing Rebekah back is the aging tyrant’s victory gesture. Once she was his right hand; now she is his middle finger.
Darcey’s departure was one of the worst kept secrets in the recent history of the business. Private Eye, TheGuardian (in the form of well-connected media commentator Roy Greenslade) and others had been openly speculating on the matter for months, the only question being who would replace him. Darcey came into the job as the dust settled in 2012; he is a safe pair of hands from central casting. But some of his initiatives have backfired - particularly the decision to put TheSun website behind a paywall.
The only question was exactly who would replace him, which ultimately came down to Brooks and former general counsel Will Lewis. Neither would have been spotless appointments. Brooks, despite her acquittal of all charges at the ‘trial of the century’, is still implicated in the bad old days, should any further revelations appear. The former head of security at News International, Mark Hanna - who was exonerated in the same trial as Brooks - has fallen out bitterly with the Murdochs, and has promised to spill the beans on more skulduggery. We shall see what he comes up with, but the threat should not be considered idle: we already know from revelations at the trial that Hanna was roped into all manner of dubious activities that a less charitable jury might have considered amounted to perversion of the course of justice.
Lewis is damaged by the 2011 fracas in a different way. As the allegations mounted up in the early part of that year, he formed a faction at the top of News International which wanted to cooperate much more fully with the authorities - taking the hit to avoid something truly explosive coming out, like the Dowler hack. He was opposed by Brooks and James Murdoch.
After the closure of the News of the World, Lewis prevailed, more or less by default. He set about shopping his own journalists and revealing their confidential sources to police. In the world of journalism, revealing sources is, of course, something like a cardinal breach of the Hippocratic oath. It is fair to say that this act, which from a certain point of view is more reprehensible than phone-hacking as such, has not been forgotten by hacks on the ground, who may occasionally be heard speaking of potential danger to Lewis’s bodily integrity, should he return from his comfortable exile in charge of Dow Jones in New York.
Business as usual?
So Brooks it was.
She will return to an organisation very much changed, although perhaps not in the ways advertised on the brochure. Wapping has been ditched, its famous fortress torn down to make way, in the spirit of the age, for luxury apartments; Brooks reported for duty at the ‘baby Shard’ - a carbuncular mass of glass at London Bridge. A great many new ‘procedures’ and ‘guidelines’ have been foisted indiscriminately on all News employees: every six months or so, the working stiff is required to play a facile edutainment game to refresh her memory of News Corp’s anti-bribery policy, like a booster vaccination.
The point of all this is, naturally, to better lubricate the downhill motion of shit. Oh yes, the bosses have learnt from the hacking scandal: never again shall such unpleasantness be allowed to creep to the door of the C-suite. The legal department will always be able to blame people further down the ladder. The hubris, the air of invincibility around TheSun office is gone. The appointment of Tony Gallagher as editor is being interpreted as an intent to bring the paper upmarket (relatively speaking): Gallagher is a Mail man through and through, and had some success bringing its brand of rancorous populism to TheDaily Telegraph (bailing out at the beginning of the recent period of total chaos at that paper).
In other ways, there is a sense of business as usual - or a return to the status quo ante. Leveson’s recommendations on press regulation were in effect stillborn, victim to industry boycott and political paralysis - the old, discredited Press Complaints Commission was replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), which is not so terribly different, bar the fact that it is effectively boycotted by the Financial Times, Independent and Guardian.
Explosive at the time, the phone-hacking scandal failed to garner the scalps it truly deserved, one or two bent Met chiefs aside. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, if David Cameron could survive the year beginning June 2011, there is no reason why his polo partner, Brooks, should not: but the revelation of flagrantly corrupt relations between then culture minister Jeremy Hunt and Murdoch’s lobbyists failed even to end Hunt’s career, who was shuffled off to health.
Instead, the scandal was subtly narrowed - in the hands of Brian Leveson and the dodgy celebrity clique that runs Hacked Off, and, with the encouragement of politicians tired of being held to ransom by the likes of Murdoch, it became merely a story of dubious journalistic ethics, and thus a face-off between the press and the judiciary.
The obvious result was the Ipso stalemate. Behind the scenes, however, the corrupt cash nexus was buried. The phone-hacking scandal was not the story of the crime, but the cover-up. It was the pulling together of the ‘Chipping Norton set’, the generous hospitality offered to top cop Paul Stephenson, the dirty culture of back-scratching, which - as the revelations piled up - turned to a culture of back-stabbing. It was only by putting a scare into every element of the establishment that we got a glimpse of how they operate when nobody is looking.
Once it turned into just a story about the press, the paradoxical but inevitable result was that the press should return, sooner or later, to its old strength. For the bourgeois press performs a social function, welding together the interests of the capitalist class (which funds it through advertising subsidies), the policy of bourgeois political parties and the perceived interests of the subordinate classes, including the proletariat, but principally in this connection the petty bourgeoisie.
In order for this to work, it is necessary for the whole thing not to appear to be corrupt. TheSun must be able to present itself, with some level of plausibility, as the voice of the salt-of-the-earth underdog against an unfeeling, politically correct elite. The glory of the summer of 2011 was that the seam was cracked open, and the peculiarly tight integration of the different parts of the British establishment was glimpsed by us all - surprising in some of its details even those of us who already knew they were ‘all in it together’.
Once it becomes about journalistic misbehaviour, however, something odd happens. An opportunity arises for politicians to take the moral high ground; that great modern circus, an interminable public inquiry, is set up; scapegoats are found. The systemic quality of the scandal can be obscured, and in the end it becomes a mundane matter of the police - stunned into action by public shame - rounding up the miscreants. Once this is achieved, the dust will soon settle; and those who escaped a diet of porridge, even (like our Rebekah) only narrowly, may be rehabilitated at their employers’ leisure.
The return of Brooks to the British press is a timely reminder that it takes more than simply one courageous journalistic crusade (and credit, once again, must be allotted to Nick Davies and his colleagues for bringing some rare dignity to the profession) to shake up this state of affairs. Above all else, it takes the development of a meaningful alternative to the capitalist media; one socially rooted not in the interests of the capitalist class, but in the need the masses have for the truth.
In a certain sense - as the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs so feared by old-school press barons like to say - the time is ripe for disruption. The bourgeois press is presently reliant for its revenues on ad sales - a race to the bottom started in earnest by one R Murdoch in the 1980s. However, as print readerships decline, so does the value of print advertising; but the discrepancy is hardly made up by digital advertising, which is cheap to the point of being worthless (and increasingly so, given the popularity of ad-blocking software and the like).
TheSunpaywall is an example of an attempt to find new revenue models in lean times, but that experiment has failed: it is one thing to charge for TheTimes or Financial Times, but quite another for celebrity gossip available on any number of websites.
A more common solution is what is called ‘native advertising’, and used to be called ‘advertorial’ - that is, adverts that take the form of news articles, sponsored by some company. The problem is that this corrodes the thing that the phone-hacking scandal exploded - the trust, however qualified, that people have in news copy. In the old days, it was simple: that bit on the left of the page was obviously an article, and that bit on the right was obviously an ad. How can you trust the editorial integrity of a newspaper whose copy is randomly and non-transparently trying to sell you something? (The Telegraph has sold its soul - such as it was - to this sort of thing, and its circulation has correspondingly plummeted.)
Imagine, for one joyful moment, a working class press: one sustained not by capitalist largesse, but the self-sacrifice of the movement it serves. The question does not even arise. There is no problem with pissing off advertisers who do not exist, nor is there posed the great game of half-bribing, half-blackmailing bourgeois political careerists until they are on message. The way is open to what ought to be the point of journalism - to tell the truth. The laugh you just stifled is not a consequence of the inherent nature of the profession, but the criminal ends to which it is put in capitalist society, where Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Nick Davies and Glenn Greenwald will always be the embattled exceptions to the toadying rule.
We are about to enter a period in British politics where there will be a leftwinger - of a soft, reformist sort, but a card-carrying communist so far as the extant dailies are concerned - in an uncomfortably public position in British political life. We may expect Jeremy Corbyn to be given the Ed Miliband treatment and then some, which consisted primarily in complete and stony silence whenever any potentially popular policies are proposed, alternating with hysterical ridicule whenever some small (in some cases, entirely imaginary) slip is made. We cannot rely on TheGuardian or - heaven forefend - the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’ to redress this imbalance.
The opportunity is there - our opponents are on weaker ground than they admit. The need is there, for obvious reasons. We must transcend the shabby condition of Socialist Worker and the like, and the coma-inducing house journals of the trade unions, and create a workers’ media fit for purpose. Otherwise, there truly will be no getting rid of the Rebekah Brookses of the world.