Trouble in the fourth estate

Murdoch, Coulson, et al are being handled with kid gloves, writes James Turley

First brought to the attention of the police almost five years ago, the News of the World’s alleged habit of illegally tapping into mobile phone voicemail inboxes continues to generate much political heat - and throws into sharp relief many of the less savoury practices of the bourgeois media. Revealingly, apart from The Guardian, The Independent and the BBC, the whole phone tapping scandal has largely been played down - that or completely ignored by other outlets.

It was the royal family’s pet bureaucracy, of all things, that first tipped off the Met about the suspiciously intimate knowledge the infamous Sunday tabloid had of its internal activities in December 2005. Two years down the line, Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire - ‘royal editor’ and private investigator respectively - were sent to prison for hacking the voicemail services of royal aides.

It took another two years, and some serious investigation by The Guardian, to reveal that the two (and more importantly, the royal aides) were merely the tip of the iceberg. A fresh round of allegations surfaced: the NOTW had targeted around 4,000 individuals, according to the material seized by police from Goodman and Mulcaire, and amassed around 3,000 phone numbers.

Suffice to say, these potential victims were drawn from far beyond the walls of Clarence House - major figures in politics, football and the media were all potentially victims of illegal surveillance. Even Rebekah Wade, then editor of the NOTW’s daily sister paper, The Sun, turned up on the list - a revealing glimpse into the internal atmosphere of the Murdoch empire. Several prominent individuals had sued the paper and settled out of court - in particular Gordon Taylor, the general secretary of Britain’s most peculiar trade union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, received a £700,000 pay-off in return for secrecy.

This kind of money does not change hands without the knowledge of the top brass, of course; the notion that this practice was limited to Goodman and Mulcaire, already pretty dubious, is no longer seriously defensible. Exactly what Goodman, whose portfolio at the paper was limited to royal family gossip-mongering, would need with the phone numbers of Gordon Taylor, Sol Campbell and Alex Ferguson has not been seriously explained either. An innocent explanation for the accumulation of 91 PIN numbers for various notables’ voicemail accounts is pretty hard to imagine as well.

This time round, the focus has shifted from the News of the screws to ... the screws. Investigations by The New York Times found the Met surprisingly cautious about diving into all this material. It somehow only managed to convict on one instance of phone hacking out of the enormous mass of evidence collected - including, for example, an audio recording of Mulcaire telling a second journalist exactly how to access Gordon Taylor’s voicemail, and exactly what he could expect to find on it.

In fact, the kind of usage the paper made of its findings suggest either remarkable stupidity on its part or the expectation that there would be no serious police probe into the affair. They quoted verbatim a message from prince William to prince Harry in one article, which had the effect of confirming all the suspicions of the oafish royals’ handlers and - by that point - the police. Any phone message that has been hacked in the primitive manner favoured by Mulcaire, of course, would usually be flagged as a saved rather than new message; and the equally primitive accumulation of all those numbers left the police with an enormous paper trail to chase.

Yet chase it they did not, in any systematic way. The NYT quoted one senior detective on the case as having been flagged down by the Met’s press officer, urging caution in the investigation in the light of the Met’s close and productive relationship with the NOTW and the Murdoch press. The unnamed investigator was unimpressed by this development - but it indicates that this relationship was a serious obstacle to investigations of individuals higher up the Murdoch food chain.

There is added interest from this angle, as the editor at the time, Andy Coulson, has since graduated to running PR affairs for the Conservative Party, setting himself up as a Tory equivalent to Alistair Campbell. The Tories have stood by their man up to this point - so, should he be dragged deeper into the scandal, as is possible, there will be serious consequences for the government.

The Guardian has taken up the investigation again - a Crown Prosecution Service report apparently states that the police took the decision early on to “ring-fence” the case and limit it to the investigation of a small cluster of individual victims. This has been explained as a method of cutting down an enormous amount of work to a manageable base - but it also fits in nicely with the possibility that the Met was indeed reluctant to wake the Murdoch dragon, as does the concentration on a few items of inconsequential royal tittle-tattle rather than the political figures who may have also been victims.

Boris Johnson - then a shadow minister - aside, almost all of these people are Labour figures of some seniority. Tessa Jowell, David Blunkett and John Prescott have emerged as names on the list. All have more serious business to keep from the prying eyes (and ears) of the News of the World than the matter of prince Harry’s visit to a strip club.

It is fairly obvious that the very existence of these papers, influential and biliously rightwing, amounts to a system of bribery of political life - not in the sense of individual incentives to individual politicians, but an objective bribery that buys enormous influence for a sector of capital on the public discourse. The flipside to this is blackmail - and, as well as the standing threat that the Murdoch tabloids will unleash the furies if they do not get their way, it is now clear that the accumulation of private data provides more immediate and specific methods with which to exert pressure on particular figures.

As far as the self-image of the Murdoch press is concerned, this influence is wielded to great effect. It includes The Times, still in some sense the semi-official ‘paper of record’ it has been for centuries, as well as The Sun, which infamously claimed credit for the defeat of Neil Kinnock in 1992.

This is certainly overstating the case, but the point remains - the Murdoch media, and other outlets like it (the Daily Mail springs to mind), are forces to be reckoned with in the bourgeois establishment. The Labour Party, the Tories and now even the police - all have reason to be cautious when treading on Murdoch’s toes. The Tories are reliant on the rightwing press in order to shore up support for policies which, objectively, rub against the interests of everyone below the Tesco board in the capitalist pecking order. Labour spent its entire recent period in government trying to defuse reactionary opposition to its rule by grovelling before such papers. The police, meanwhile, cannot be unaware that their most able propagandists write for the Mail and The Sun, which will never be caught opposing the extension of their powers.

The relationship, however, is reciprocal. This is highlighted by the behaviour of the News of the World throughout this scandal; it relies on the acquiescence of the major political parties and the state apparatus in order to do its business - it could not seriously have expected to get away with bugging the answering machines of princes without it.

More concretely, it relies on a favourable attitude to the manner in which it makes money. This includes the sort of sensationalist scandal-mongering and celebrity gossip that makes such unsavoury activities so attractive, but also the large-scale funding of the mass media by advertising. By combining his own capital with that of advertisers, Murdoch is able to buy almost anything - from political favour to, on average, less harmful outcomes in libel cases and the like.

Of course, it does not always pan out like that. The different wings of the state have their own interests, even if - at the end of the day - their actions add up to a coherent front of bourgeois power; thus they sometimes come into conflict with each other and with ‘private’ ideological organisations such as the Murdoch empire. The present scandal is a particularly extreme example.

Even now, though, Murdoch, Coulson, et al are being handled with kid gloves. They have bought enough power and threatened enough people to ensure that. Small leftwing papers, supported not by multi-million-pound advertising deals, but by determined fundraising by readers, do not have that luxury. Ending the domination of public discourse by the bourgeois mass media means cutting this umbilical cord to start with. It also means denouncing the hypocritical poses of Labour figures - most notably John Prescott - who complain at being spied upon, having grovelled before the very same spies through their entire time in government.