Strike back against the empire

Place newspapers in the hands of journalists and printworkers, demands James Turley

The News of the World’s phone-tapping scandal continues to develop - revealing new aspects of the Murdoch empire’s power at every turn.

Now a number of MPs have used the reach of Rupert Murdoch’s News International as an excuse for the fact that some its key figures were not subpoenaed over their role in the scandal, which has seen a plethora of people in public life - from princes to politicians, to professional footballers - highlighted as potential victims of News of the World spying on their mobile phone voicemails.

Two MPs on the culture, media and sport parliamentary subcommittee - not a matter of any small interest to the present furore, which stretches into all three areas of expertise - have suggested that Murdoch people used threats, explicit and implicit, against its members. Liberal Democrat Adrian Price recalls reading an autobiography by a News International executive: “That is what we do. We go out and destroy people’s lives.” Understandably, perhaps, Price - and many others, according to The Financial Times - was reluctant to tread too close to the toes of Murdoch and his minions, refusing to subpoena Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), editor of The Sun and a senior figure in Murdoch’s organisation (September 11).

Andy Coulson, News of the World editor at the time of the known phone hackings, remains apparently secure in his new job as David Cameron’s chief spin-doctor. Yet he will be worried - his protestations of ignorance with regard to the unsavoury activities of his employees have become ever less convincing. After the implication of senior police figures in the Met’s apparently lackadaisical approach to the case, now members of parliament are freely insinuating that they have been browbeaten by News International into laying off Rebekah Brooks.

How long can Coulson hope to keep his name out of it? The one News of the World hack to fall so far is none other than its then royal editor, Clive Goodman. Given the absurd amount of space dedicated by the rag to monarchical tittle-tattle, this cannot be a minor position. It is fairly well established, moreover, that the practice of hacking voicemail accounts was used in other sections of the Murdoch newsroom. Is the buck really to stop with Goodman and his equivalents on the News of the Screws staff - presumably accused of arriving at the same nefarious act in separate moments of ingenuity?

It would be far from surprising that such methods were endemic throughout the sensationalist tabloid media as a whole. Such papers act as a kind of idiotic parody of the classic muckraking journalism of an earlier epoch; where the latter offered salacious details of obscene labour conditions and municipal corruption, the tabloids offer stories of the misdemeanours of celebrities great and small - including, where convenient, politicians and royals.

It is notable that only the left-of-centre (in bourgeois terms) broadsheets in this country - The Guardian and The Independent, as well as The Financial Times - have really run with this story. A certain amount of reportage pops up elsewhere - but The Guardian did most of the initial investigative legwork on the story. According to Private Eye, even The Guardian held back on important details when the affair went before the aforementioned browbeaten Commons select committee, in order to avoid ‘all-out war’ with News International.

Who is this man who has governments, senior police officers and his media rivals running scared? Murdoch was born into journalism - but has always favoured the business end of the practice. He inherited his first newspaper in 1952, based in Adelaide. Since then, his rise to stupendous wealth and notoriety has been steady and apparently unstoppable. He acquired The Sun, a broadsheet successor to the semi-official Labour Party paper, the Daily Herald, and quickly transformed it into the biliously reactionary tabloid gossip sheet it is today.

Having bought The Times, a pretty prestigious addition to a British media portfolio by any measure, he proceeded to provide enthusiastic support to Margaret Thatcher throughout her time in government. This support was not simply limited to approving journalistic coverage. In the 1980s, Murdoch’s growing business was instrumental in crushing the Wapping print unions - a key industrial battle. Around about this time, also, he moved into satellite television, and he remains the chief beneficiary of pay TV in the UK, with revenue streams outstripping all competitors - including the BBC’s £3billion-odd licence fee funding.

Murdoch has never missed a trick in his life. When he felt government pressure on his increasingly monopolistic business practices, he used his growing political influence to defuse it. That is not the limit of his political ambition, though - Murdoch fancies himself as a kingmaker in electoral situations, especially in Britain. When, against many expectations, the Tories prevailed over Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party in 1992, his flagship tabloid legendarily declared: “It’s The Sun wot won it!” This is, of course, something of an exaggeration.

Yet it remains true that no party has been successful in an election for 30 years without the support of the Murdoch press. The drip-drip of memoirs from leading New Labour figures, as well as various spin-doctors, suggests that the price for Murdoch’s support was high. Lance Price, a No10 spin-doctor during Blair’s first term, argued that no major political decision could be made by the government without the approval of three men - Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch. When the latter threw his full support behind the Iraq war, trumpeting the prime minister’s and George W Bush’s belligerence and vilifying the French “worm”, Jacques Chirac, no doubt it made Blair’s imperialist ambitions that much easier to fulfil (Murdoch openly suggested that the war was necessary because ‘we need the oil’ - although not in The Sun, of course).

And, of course, Andy Coulson was able to proceed directly from the phone-tapping scandal to David Cameron’s inner circle - not a feat likely to be achieved by a Guardian editor (perhaps Cameron considered the ethically dubious activities of Screws journalists to count as valuable work experience for the even dirtier game of bourgeois politics).

That is the carrot - now to the stick. We know the somewhat bloodthirsty tone of the Murdoch tabloids when dealing with their foes. If you are not in their good books, you should be prepared for some pretty wild abuse. What the News of the World’s activities also suggest, very strongly, is a systematic ability on the part of the Murdoch organisation to do character assassinations. The practice of voicemail hacking seems pretty widespread - and we can only guess at other means of generating scandal stories.

It is quite plausible then, that if - for example - you are a detective in the Met investigating legally dubious activities at the News of the Screws, and you are being a little more intransigent than is helpful, then The Sun and so forth may well try to dish the dirt on you. The timidity of the police - as well as unnamed informants for a New York Times piece which reignited the controversy - suggest that this kind of thing does take place.

It was the Scottish wing of the News of the World, meanwhile, that began publishing details of Tommy Sheridan’s private life in 2004. He, ill-advisedly, took News International to court for defamation - which resulted in a pyrrhic victory, destroying the Scottish Socialist Party as a substantial organisation and drawing himself into a perjury charge, still yet to be heard in court. Given Murdoch’s visceral anti-leftism and union-busting tendencies, it is not imprudent to imagine his lackeys gathering material on Bob Crow or Mark Serwotka.

It is transparent that his empire needs to be destroyed. News International is far from the only media conglomerate to have bought substantial political influence, even in Britain alone - yet it is by far the most powerful. Murdoch’s papers account for 37% of total newspaper circulation. By some projections, his empire will be in receipt of half the total revenue from television in the next 10 years. The Murdoch papers, in particular, represent a hugely influential bulwark against almost any political argument that can be called progressive or democratic.

Yet journalists are not generally the most reactionary bunch. The political initiative flows from above. It would not be necessary to shut down or ban the Murdoch papers - just to destroy Murdoch’s control over them, and place the papers in the hands of the journalists and printworkers. More generally, as I argued last week, the capitalist press is primarily funded by large-scale advertising subsidy rather than circulation, which necessarily has the effect of shifting politics to the right. To cut this link would require the press to fund itself from its readership base - removing the congenital advantage it enjoys over, for example, the left press, funded in this way because we have no choice.