Death in Wapping
The News of the World scandal has revealed the true relationship between the media and politicians, writes James Turley
It has probed, at best semi-legally, into the private affairs of well-heeled celebrities, politicians and royals major and minor; yet Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has suffered its first major body-blow in decades at the hands of a dead teenager.
The News of the World is no more; its final edition, equal parts journalistic defiance, flatulent self-justification and business as usual, came to pass last Sunday. The steady drip of allegations concerning the practice of phone-hacking - accessing the mobile voicemail messages of others illegally - has turned inexorably into a torrent. Rupert Murdoch had a choice: either lose his most loyal lieutenants or a paper he had already come to regard as an encumbrance. On the surface, it was a no-brainer.
Yet the Screws is not the major casualty here. Until recently, the story was pushed forward primarily by The Guardian, almost alone at times (though The New York Times, BBC and muckraking fixture Private Eye did contribute too). Now, notables are desperate to put the boot in. Ed Miliband has gone from hob-nobbing at Murdoch’s summer party barely a month ago to angry parliamentary sabre-rattling. The Tories, after much hand-wringing, have had to go along with it.
The rest of the rightwing press, previously suspiciously reticent about following the story too closely, has been compelled to go on the offensive. The police, several years too late, now have two separate investigations on the go.
As the hacking affair gathered steam from 2009, it increasingly highlighted how close the relations between Murdoch, the government (of whatever stripe) and the state apparatus had become. Everyone, it seemed, was equally desperate to bury the affair. Murdoch’s media clout was, in the phrase of the day, ‘too big to fail’. Now, all those allies are queuing up instead to bury Murdoch. The significance of this past week lies in how it has reduced this mutually profitable triple alliance to shreds.
Murdoch will not save it by sacrificing the News of the World. Some have been led to wonder, in fact, if the grizzled patriarch is going a little soft in his dotage. In particular his determination to protect his son, James, and News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks - in charge at the NotW at the time of the Milly Dowler affair (the murdered teenager into whose phone the NotW allegedly hacked) - amounts to two massive hostages to fortune.
It is simply inconceivable that Brooks did not know what was going on under her watch (though perhaps conceivable, even now, that the police will fail to pin it on her); it is hardly sound business sense on the part of James Murdoch to sign off on several six-figure out-of-court settlements without inquiring as to what Gordon Taylor was £700,000-worth of angry about. Murdoch senior is famed for his utterly ruthless business sense; keeping Brooks safe in particular looks increasingly like an ill-advised outbreak of sentimentality on his part (though there is also the matter of how much dirt she has on him).
The fallout for Murdoch’s British operation is already immense. The list of illegal activities exposed now not only goes beyond phone-hacking, but also beyond the NotW newsroom. The Sun allegedly accessed the private medical records of Gordon Brown’s family, for a scoop on his son’s cystic fibrosis. The Sunday Times is said to have hired actors and con-men to ‘blag’ all manner of Brown’s personal information, including bank details and tax records.
Even worse, Murdoch’s potentially lucrative bid for overall control of BSkyB, of which he currently owns 39%, is now a dead duck - the Tories and the Liberal Democrats both backed the Labour motion calling for it to be halted. And even before the debate Murdoch threw in the towel. Under the rules, however, News Corp could renew its planned bid of £7.8 billion, though few expect public anger to have cooled sufficiently even by then. The takeover of BskyB would have made him billions every year; instead its ignominious collapse sent BSkyB share prices tumbling.
Still more significant is the death of his special relationship with the British government. It is often assumed that Murdoch’s interventions in politics are motivated by a fanatically reactionary streak; in fact, it is almost entirely about the narrow matter of his bank balance. In the 1980s, he needed the powerful print unions out of the way, so he curried favour with the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and cheered her on in her attacks on organised labour. In 1995, not willing to be saddled with continued support for a dying Tory government, he started doing business with Labour’s Tony Blair. Once given ‘the offer they cannot refuse’, politicians can be kept onside with the carrot of official support, and the stick of slavering and merciless attacks.
The latest iteration of this pattern would have been the BSkyB deal - under these circumstances, it would have looked exactly like what it is: simple political corruption. Bourgeois politicians, despite their present bout of anti-Murdoch posturing, remain by and large cowards. It is just that now it takes more spine to back Murdoch than oppose him.
Shutting down the NotW, meanwhile, has made him a whole tranche of more humble enemies - the paper’s erstwhile staff. It would have been easy enough, perhaps, for the newsroom journos to blame The Guardian for their woes; but perhaps the most encouraging sight in the whole affair has been the very minor, but nonetheless real, glimpses of solidarity among them against their bosses.
After the closure was announced, staff on The Sun stopped work - if only for an hour. Screws journalists are quite unanimous in their attitude to their betters. “Brooks or NotW?” tweeted one; “Murdoch’s ditched the wrong red top.”
For all these reasons, those who consider this a storm in a teacup, to be resolved by the launch of a Sunday edition of The Sun and a slow return to business as usual, are wrong. What is at issue here is a process of reconfiguration in the media, and its relation to other branches of society. It is no longer possible for the media barons’ political schmoozing operations to be an open secret - because it is no longer a secret at all.
The bourgeois media will, of course, remain a key buttress for capitalism; yet Murdoch is in a sense the last of a breed - an individual of immense economic and cultural power operating a protection racket on the great and the good. It is unlikely that another, similar individual will replace him as a global powerbroker.
Partly this is an effect of structural changes in the media. The empirical evidence is irrefutable: the printed newspaper is in decline. The NotW was the largest circulation paper in Britain, and by some estimates in the English language, full stop; yet it sold about 2.5 million copies a week, a third of its circulation in its 1950s golden age. The Guardian, which pursued the story, languishes at around 200,000 - and recorded losses of over £130 million last year.
There is the technical matter of the ‘new media’. In particular, old-fashioned print and broadcast media outlets are having an uneven experience in learning how to make money out of the internet. Costs are cut and the newsrooms shrink; an ever smaller number of journalists are expected to fill an ever larger number of column inches (once extra web content is factored in). This is the central thesis of Nick Davies’s Flat earth news, which argues that economic pressures have led to a wholesale degradation in the quality and accuracy of journalism, with a very substantial proportion of copy recycled from agencies and PR releases.
It is Davies, as it happens, who was the lead journalist on The Guardian investigation; the phone-hacking affair seems to be a peculiar case of this general trend. What has come out is an industrialisation not just of the raw material of news copy (as with the centralisation of press agencies), but of the underhand tactics necessary to conduct investigative journalism.
Emblematic here is one of the most recent revelations: a low-level police officer in Exeter, looking notables up in the police computer system and selling the information to a private investigator based in nearby Exmouth. The latter individual in turn sold the information to a wide network of clients, including investigators on the payrolls of various news organisations; police in Plymouth dug all this up before the whole affair was summarily buried on penny-pinching grounds by a judge.
Equally, the apparently routine practice of buying titbits off police officers acquired an industrial character, with the close, semi-formalised cooperation between Murdoch papers and police forces. It was this mass production of ‘investigative’ journalism which led to the disastrous, but apparently unconscious, decision to hack Milly Dowler’s mobile - and now the death of one of the last newspapers to conduct large-scale investigative journalism, albeit of a particularly sensationalist sort.
Problems and solutions
Given this context, we should be cautious about joining in wholeheartedly with the present anti-Murdoch hullabaloo.
It may be an often insufferable paper, whose first editorial was a cowardly attack on the victims of Peterloo, but The Guardian team has done a real service in committing to the kind of serious, sustained investigative journalism that is increasingly consigned to history under the pressure of the decline of print news; and for taking as its target a media behemoth that behaves at times like a mafia family. Yet in order to get anything on such individuals and organisations it is - in practice - almost invariably necessary to resort to underhand methods.
Voicemail hacking may be a product of modern technology, but ‘suborning public officials’ - ie, slipping a source a fistful of notes for some dirt - is as old as journalism itself. The defence mechanisms of large-scale corruption must very often be penetrated by means of petty corruption.
The trouble with the practices at the News of the World is nothing to do with the particular crimes for which people may or may not go to jail. It is that this great industrial apparatus is dedicated, ultimately, to making a handful of people an awful lot of money; and this aim equally means voyeuristic harassment of celebrities and systematic bribery and blackmail of governments and the state.
This has a profoundly distorting effect on the nominal aim of news journalism - to bring the truth to light, and empower the people to informed civic activity. The ‘souvenir pullout’ of the last News of the World, anthologising its favourite scoops, exemplifies this - no less than three entries each for celebrities taking cocaine and others having sex with prostitutes. This is not news. It is a low-calorie news substitute. The tabloid editors claim they are giving the people what they want - in reality, they are telling the people what they should want, by engineering their output to a cynically commercial calculus.
We should, in the first instance, oppose with utmost vigour the moves towards statutory regulation of the press. Given all that has come out, the notion that we can trust the state or the judiciary to defend in sublime indifference legal and ethical media standards is utterly laughable. To constrict tabloid gossip-mongering would equally be to constrict the entire left press (and, indeed, The Guardian, which is routinely technically guilty of seditious libel). It is a pseudo-solution to the wrong problem.
The solution is rather to destroy the power of capital over the press - turf out the moguls and their cartels of advertisers, which amplify the collective voice of the bourgeoisie to drown out all others. Nick Davies’s book doubts the direct political clout of advertisers, but that is not the real point. Advertising amounts to a colossal subsidy, which allows particular outlets to enjoy influence well in advance of their ‘natural’ circulation - something like the BBC licence fee, only for capitalist oligarchs. Media outlets should be run on the basis of the money they can raise from their readers and viewers.
It is also worth asking the question: if journalists and other media workers controlled their papers, websites, etc collectively, would the state of the press be so dire? Did anyone in the NotW newsroom really get into journalism to give us “Ricky coke shame” or “Cheating Roo beds hooker”? Would the majority of actual news copy be recycled from the Press Association wire? Probably not - so we are for the workers in this industry, in the newsrooms and the printshops, taking control of the papers themselves.
In Wapping 25 years ago, the idea of even limited working class control over the media was killed off for a generation. Now the News of the World has died on the same patch of east London, it is time we got that idea back.