Shoot the messenger

Bourgeois political power is not as unassailable as they would like us to think. Our rulers can be relied upon, periodically, to split. James Turley looks at the botched attempt of the Metropolitan Police to use the Official Secrets Act

Once again, The Guardian has found itself targeted because of its phone-hacking investigation. Waving around the Official Secrets Act, Scotland Yard had intended to take the newspaper to court in an attempt to force it to disclose how it obtained information that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone had been hacked. A police mole is suspected. Of course, as it turns out the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) thought the action inadvisable - not least because of the widespread protests against the police action from within the establishment, including from other sections of the bourgeois press.

The Guardian, and its investigative reporters, Nick Davies and Amelia Hill, had faced censure from the powers-that-be on this score already. The Press Complaints Commission famously told them to leave off News International and the News of the World several years ago - after all, it was just one rogue reporter involved in phone-hacking, and there was no way that honest men and women like Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks could in any way be implicated in the misdemeanours of their underlings ...

That, of course, turned out to be a spectacularly misguided intervention, which ultimately cost the PCC boss her job and the commission itself its ‘good name’ (or what little remained of it after a couple of decades of similar cravenness). Whether or not the Met’s attempt to shoot the messenger will plunge that organisation into acute embarrassment remains to be seen.

After all, it failed in spectacular fashion. Perhaps the obstacles were simply too numerous. Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor, promised to fight it out to the bitter end and, given the prestige Davies, Hill and their colleagues have won for the ailing daily, there is no reason to doubt him. The law on this point is, if not on their side as such, at the very least disputed. The Official Secrets Act is assumed to cover matters relating to the intimate affairs of state, not whistleblowers on police corruption; moreover, there are the competing claims of human rights law as regards freedom of the press and protection of sources. Finally, there is the ‘public interest defence’, which was probably more on the side of The Guardian too.

The man with the job of sorting this mess out was to be attorney general Dominic Grieve, who would have to countersign any attempt to prosecute the paper; in the event, the CPS saved him the headache, and forced the Met to climb down.

In this respect, The Guardian has every reason to thank its lucky stars. Grieve is a Tory MP, a committed Anglican, cool on the European Union, and has a record of opposing gay rights. He is unlikely to have any love for what - relatively speaking - is the most leftwing of the major daily papers in this country. Moreover, having wormed his way up the judicial ladder, he is likely to have all the institutionally guaranteed biases towards the state typical of such people, as will any judge who actually was to rule on any case that made it to court as a consequence.

If his political instincts, along with the need (in the wake of the riots, and anticipation of protests against the government’s austerity programme) to restore some kind of authority to a deeply embarrassed Scotland Yard, pointed him towards prosecuting The Guardian, there would have been a whole other potential political shit-storm in siding with a blundering act of damage limitation on the part of the Met.

After all, Operation Weeting - when it is not launching scurrilous legal challenges to semi-dissident newspapers - is busily engaged in actually investigating the phone-hacking affair, burning up £200,000 a month as it does so. Even Scotland Yard should be capable of turning up some new revelation or another with that kind of money. Meanwhile, James Murdoch is likely to be recalled to the culture, media and sport select committee to give further evidence, which may itself turn up the heat on the scandal.

It is hardly remarkable that the Met has taken this opportunity - however ineptly - to perform a little housekeeping. There is every reason to suppose that, having been given a blank cheque to investigate the ins and outs of phone-hacking, these bureaucrats and oppressors would take the opportunity to seal up the leaks in their own organisation. Put bluntly, the Met has plenty to hide. It shoots men dead in cold blood; it then lets the killers off with a slap on the wrist. People still die, inexplicably, in its cells. It launches provocations against protestors, and then confines distressed teenagers to a stretch of Whitehall in mid-winter conditions.

It gets away with all this through skilful media management - in other words, lying. If there is a copper with a conscience, access to confidential information and Amelia Hill’s phone number, then there is good reason for the chain of command to use every available means to find out his or her identity, and deal with the matter to the top brass’s satisfaction. Who knows what other embarrassing stories might turn up in The Guardian?

What is remarkable, rather, about this affair is that it happened now, after Milly Dowler, after Rupert Murdoch’s cross-examination in parliament, after the embarrassment - more to the point - of the Met’s two top coppers falling on their swords over the same weekend for their dubious roles in the subsequent cover-up. It is a politically inopportune time, and likely to cause headaches at all levels of government.

More ominously for the Met, it brought into being a grand united front in the bourgeois press. The Independent could be relied upon to spring to the aid of Rusbridger, Davies and Hill - but supportive editorials from The Times and The Sunday Times are of considerable symbolic importance, given their status as Murdoch papers. The tabloids, which have been quite tellingly reticent about reporting the hacking affair at all, also waded in - The Mirror called it “policing gone mad”, and even Richard Littlejohn, the Mail’s most belligerent bigot, could be found for once defending his arch-enemies.

Communists are quite clear which side we are on in this dispute: the attempt to use the Official Secrets Act to suppress investigative journalism, indeed the very notion of ‘official secrets’, conceals a profound attack on democracy - even if the narrow matter of how Amelia Hill came to know that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked is hardly of world-historic importance in itself. For once, we are in total agreement with Richard Littlejohn: “We should put our rivalry and differences aside and defend The Guardian. You can’t have a free society without a free press. This isn’t just an attack on The Guardian: it’s an attack on us all. It must not be allowed to succeed” (Daily Mail September 20).

That much goes without saying. The broader, and more interesting, matter is the status of the ruling class consensus on this question. The police, it is quite obvious, defend the capitalist order through repression; the bourgeois press equally clearly defend capitalism on the level of ideology, of filtration of the great flux of human experience so it seems to confirm a certain ‘common sense’ about the system. The judicial apparatus has a foot in both camps: it both doles out repression and constitutes people through property relations as bourgeois subjects.

We Marxists are accustomed to enumerations of this type (in addition to the above, there are many more factors in the reproduction of capitalist power, from financial markets to the labour bureaucracy, the Lords to the primary school). We are accustomed to thinking of all these factors as a totality, which has the danger (when, like now, we are numerically and politically weak) of implying a smoothly functional system which has everything sewn up in advance.

Yet here the system was at loggerheads with itself: the ‘normal’ functioning of the bourgeois press caused an antagonism with the police, with the judiciary an ‘undecidable’ factor standing between them. This, in other words, was a split in the ruling class - modest, to be sure, and a temporary one, but real nonetheless.

Despite the lack of mass outcry on the issue (compared to the revelation that Dowler’s phone had been hacked), this is actually as bad as things have got for the ruling class in the course of this scandal. When it blew wide open, and the establishment was plunged for a couple of weeks into chaos, a consensus was nonetheless reached; senior police officers resigned, as did Murdoch executives, and parliament canned Murdoch’s bid for total ownership of BSkyB to rid itself of its share of the phone-hacking taint.

The bourgeoisie itself - in the form of The Guardian - undertook to reveal in gloriously revolting detail the level of corruption in the establishment which defends its rule. Not three months later, the same establishment acrimoniously breaks down on the matter of how to limit the damage. Far from being a perfect self-reproducing machine, capitalism - economically, politically and ideologically - propels itself towards fragmentation quite under its own steam.

That is the positive lesson from this affair - bourgeois political power is not as unassailable as they would like us to think. Our rulers can be relied upon, periodically, to split - and hand the advantage momentarily to the working class, which can exploit the divisions to considerable effect.

The negative lesson is that we are not in any kind of position, at present, to do so; the spat has been resolved, and will now pass into history. The left needs to unite and present a coherent alternative to this mess - otherwise the only beneficiaries of ruling class paralysis will be the right.