The fall of the Murdoch empire?
As the News of the World phone-hacking scandal grows, the corruption underlying the bourgeois state becomes ever more obvious, argues James Turley
Referring to British rule in India, Marx observes: “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”
What he might have added is this - in times of generalised social upheaval and crisis, even the ‘respectable forms’ adopted for domestic consumption begin to wither. So not only have the recent Arab democratic revolts, in time-honoured form, exposed the imperialists again and again as the greatest enemy democracy has in this world, but (for example) the neoliberal ideology that good government in our age consists of competent and prudent administration of the economy has been given the lie by the economically illiterate yet omnipresent drive towards autocannibalistic budget cuts.
Finally, the idea that constitutional capitalist ‘democracy’, with its checks and balances and strong institutions, represents an imperfect but effective bulwark against corruption has been repeatedly exposed under the pressure of the times for the most laughable fraud. In keeping with the best traditions of seditious journalism, nobody has made quite so great a contribution to uncovering this fraud than Rupert Murdoch and his cabal of cronies.
Readers will be aware of the basics of the case - what began as an investigation into how exactly the News of the World’s then royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, came to know certain salacious details of Prince Harry’s private life, a question which seemed to have been buried by Goodman’s conviction (along with shady private eye, Glenn Mulcaire) for hacking into the prince’s mobile phone voicemail, has continued to spiral into a scandal of epic proportions.
Murdoch and his cronies have attempted to cover up the extent of the scandal at every step. In doing so, they have proven the old adage that the cover-up often causes more problems than the crime. A constant drip, drip of new revelations has exposed their manoeuvrings at every stage. If it was just ‘one rogue reporter’, as initially claimed, why did the list of potential victims include many of the great and the good with no known links to the royal family? What induced the Murdoch organisation to hand Gordon Taylor, general secretary of the Professional Football Association, a generous wad of hush money? The questions kept on piling up - thanks in no small part to rival media organisations like The Guardian, along with more old-fashioned muckraking outfits like Private Eye, the story just did not die.
Now, the police have grudgingly admitted that the possible scope for criminal convictions is far wider than previously conceded. The situation has already forced former Andy Coulson out of his new job as David Cameron’s chief spin doctor. Neville Thurlbeck and Ian Edmondson, at the time chief reporter and news editor respectively, have been arrested. The police have stated that at least 91 individuals may have a case against the paper. Most ominously for Murdoch, trusted and loyal lieutenant Rebekah Brooks - former editor of both the News of the World and The Sun - has been taken in for questioning on the basis of an unguarded admission that Murdoch papers had suborned police officers to get those sensational law ’n’ order stories.
Previously, Coulson was the main target in the sights of rival journalists and muckrakers. After all, getting him bang to rights would not only deliver a bloody nose to the Murdoch empire: it would provide serious embarrassment to the government and David Cameron in particular. Some of the sting has gone out of the latter possibility, after Coulson fell on his sword. Yet, now that Brooks - chief executive of News International - is potentially in the frame, even juicier targets present themselves. After all, Brooks is answerable to almost nobody except Murdoch and his clan.
It is in this light that we must regard News International’s “unreserved apology” to eight victims of phone-hacking - remarkable as such a public admission of civil liability from a major, litigation-hardened news organisation was. Firstly, it was far from ‘unreserved’ - the admission of guilt was limited to those eight cases, and to the years of Coulson’s editorship. This, on one level, is an attempt to protect Brooks. On another, it is worth noting, as Private Eye has, that just a week before news of the apology broke, James Murdoch - son and heir to the big man - was spirited away to America for a new job. Coincidence? You decide.
I said above that the cover-up has caused more trouble than the crime. Not for News International, it is true: it remains possible that some key executives may be saved from court convictions they might otherwise face. If, however, Murdoch had held up his hands, he certainly could have pleaded ignorance; the News of the World would have all but collapsed overnight, and that would have been a publicly humiliating (and costly) spectacle, but the rest of his empire would probably get through unscathed.
What Murdoch has done, by ineptly fighting to the bitter end (the bitter end, of course, is not yet here, but nobody can seriously expect him to give up now), is drag almost the entire British establishment into it. Suspicions about the Metropolitan Police’s role in this affair have been rife since the beginning. The cops are always willing to come out on the reactionary line that in today’s ‘liberal’ society the rights of criminals override the rights of victims to exact vengeance through the agency of the state.
Yet never - except when there has been something amiss - have the police been so timid in pursuing leads in a high-profile case. The victims certainly seemed far more sure a crime had been committed than the cops - former Met deputy commissioner Andy Hayman, who was in charge of the original investigation, last September even publicly ridiculed the “rants” of John Prescott. Of course, he would do that - Hayman walked straight out of the Met into a job at ... the News of the World.
He was not the only big wig in London’s finest, meanwhile, to be wined and dined at the Murdoch empire’s expense - simply the most cooperative of a pretty craven bunch (when, that is, they are faced with large-scale corporate criminality, as opposed to engaging in the agreeable Saturday afternoon hobby of kettling 12-year-olds). That similar schmoozing and ingratiation was directed at the top levels of government and the civil service barely needs to be mentioned - that, too, has become clearer as time goes on.
The influence of media barons on government is not simply about mobilising public opinion around a number of reactionary canards (the more or less unchanging top three: ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘immigration chaos’, ‘dependency culture’). It is also about direct access to ministers and mandarins - up to and including the prime minister. The former is more useful in imposing policy agendas; the latter more useful in guarding particular corporate interests. (It is notable in this connection that the department for business still does not consider the phone-hacking affair in any way relevant to Murdoch’s attempt to secure a controlling interest in BSkyB.)
With the carrot comes the stick. Hayman was buttered up, to be sure - but one of Murdoch’s ‘incentives’ was an agreement to spike an embarrassing News of the World story about his private life. Members of various parliamentary sub-committees have complained of threats to their reputation, should they tread too heavily on Murdoch’s toes. Given that phone-hacking is merely the technically illegal tip of an iceberg of subterfuge techniques in the regular employ of Murdoch’s tabloid hacks, it is not particularly paranoid to assume that they have some dirt on almost everyone with any influence in the establishment.
Despite the genuinely admirable energy with which The Guardian and other bourgeois papers have pursued this investigation, they are not wholly innocent - because they, too, would like it to be a compartmentalised story: about the Murdoch organisation, antipathetic to almost every value The Guardian holds dear (not to say very much a senior rival in the broadsheet market), and also to a limited extent about the Tories, and an even more limited extent about the tycoon’s influence on Blair’s New Labour project.
Communists are clear: this scandal shows in uncannily stark detail the objective structure of bourgeois politics as a whole. The capitalist press has such a massive reach because of advertising - that is, it is objectively subsidised by the bourgeois class to pursue its interests (in an often complicated and indirect way). The reactionary tabloids in particular work to ensure the hegemony of the bourgeoisie over the petty bourgeoisie, with the political expression of this relationship residing in votes for the Conservative Party when possible, or Labour Party when necessary. The persistence of these media organisations, of which Murdoch’s is merely the most infamous apotheosis, through the span of many governments gives a certain guarantee that the same class interests will be embodied through those governments - as does the persistence of the Sir Humphreys of the state bureaucracy, the generals, judges, etc.
For any democracy to be possible, it is not enough, as genuine Marxists have always emphasised, to smash the state bureaucracy and armed bodies of men: we must also neutralise capitalist control over the media. Advertising subsidy should be abolished, so the capitalists can no longer effectively buy public opinion. Any paper, TV station or website that cannot survive on its mass audience alone should be fully socialised under workers’ control. Otherwise, at best we will just end up, to coin a phrase, with Murdochism without Murdoch - and the ability of bourgeois society to conceal its barbaric essence will be saved from the brink.
- Private Eye April 12.