Murdoch fights back
Despite the imminent launch of a sunday edition of The Sun the relationship between the press and the politicians will not quite be the same, says James Turley
When the News of the World shut up shop last summer, amid mounting allegations of systematic criminality in its newsroom, many more of the more cynical commentators could be found wondering what all the fuss was about - surely Rupert Murdoch would simply launch a new Sunday title - The Sun on Sunday perhaps - and go back to holding the country to ransom?
Such people rather underestimated the sheer impact of the phone-hacking scandal, which has left the relationship between government, state and media somewhat chaotic. Nonetheless, those in the market for a new popular Sunday tabloid will be relieved to hear that The Sun is, indeed, going to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, from this weekend.
This is not a simple return to how things were before - even on the level of the ‘new’ paper itself. The hundreds of News of the Screws staff to be turfed out upon that paper’s closure will not, on the whole, be returning to ‘their’ jobs. The Sun on Sunday is exactly what it says on the masthead - it will be edited by Sun editor Dominic Mohan, and produced, one assumes, on the cheap by The Sun’s newsroom.
This is hardly surprising. While the News of the World did turn a profit for Murdoch, it was hardly an enormous one by his rather gluttonous standards. Indeed, this is the general drift of the print news industry in this country. One could not look for a better example, ironically enough, than The Guardian’s sister paper The Observer, which is more and more reduced to a cut-rate annex of the daily. (Both papers run at an enormous loss, and are effectively subsidised by, of all things, Auto Trader.)
In that sense, then, the major casualty of the phone hacking scandal has not been resurrected - however well The Sun’s Sunday edition performs. ‘Fake sheikh’ Mazher Mahmood will not be returning to entrap luckless celebrities into snorting cocaine on camera, at ludicrous expense to News International (music industry grade charlie does not come cheap). This is to be a less extravagant outlet for the laddish, occasionally witty, reactionary gibberish that is the stock in trade of Murdoch’s popular titles.
Nonetheless, it is not without significance. In spite of everything, Murdoch obviously feels he has regained enough of the initiative to go on the offensive. Without any truly scandalous new revelations, the phone hacking farrago is subject to the law of diminishing returns in terms of news coverage.
In any case, the Leveson inquiry into press ethics has returned us, as it were, to square one. For most of the duration of the phone hacking affair, all British newspapers - barring The Guardian, which led the investigation, and muck-raking stalwart Private Eye - maintained a conspicuous (and thoroughly guilty) silence on the matter. Grubby and semi-legal activities are part and parcel of journalism, after all; and, while The Guardian and the Eye, rightly or wrongly, felt confident of a public-interest defence of their disclosures and activities, the same could not be said of the bulk of the rightwing and tabloid press. The latter resisted covering the scandal right up to the moment where it so dominated the news agenda that ignoring it was more conspicuous than half-hearted denunciations of the unscrupulous Screws.
Now, however, months into the Leveson inquiry, which has heard evidence from (and against) potty-mouthed Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, porn magnate and Express Newspapers boss Richard ‘Dirty’ Desmond, and all the great and the good of the popular press, the story is once again embarrassing enough to drop off the agenda. Forget, for one moment, phone hacking; the Mail has a track record of absolutely rabid defamation of character - Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of the murdered architect, Joanna Yeates, is one recent example - that is spared the attention of British libel law only on the basis that the latter is too expensive for the vast majority of the population.
Perhaps the viceroys of the Murdoch empire sense this change. For columnists on News International titles feel increasingly at liberty to complain about the terrible suffering doled out to them by the police - raiding houses unannounced at 6am, for example, scandalously leaving the hacks with no time at all to destroy evidence. Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun paints an outraged picture of his colleagues being treated like an “organised crime gang” (February 13); as if “organised crime” was not the most succinct description of the industrial-scale hacking operations on the News of the World ... Murdoch himself has been more circumspect on the matter than Kavanagh, as well he might be, but the latter would not have been allowed to mouth off on the matter without his superiors’ say-so.
Assuming that to be the case, one wonders if Murdoch and his cronies still - in spite of everything - expect all this to somehow just blow over.
If so, he is to a considerable degree mistaken. His organisation, it should be stressed, is hardly the only one guilty of the particular crimes and misdemeanours (phone hacking, suborning officers of the law) which have brought his empire to so much grief. The decisive questions are, firstly, that Murdoch’s success in turning such methods into mass circulation is, in a twisted way, admirable; and secondly, that he has bought himself such enormous influence in the corridors of power.
Let us remind ourselves that barely a month before the Screws was revealed to have hacked the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, all the main party leaders attended Murdoch’s annual ‘summer party’; that an erstwhile loyal lieutenant like Rebekah Brooks was on personal terms with the prime minister, as part of the now infamous ‘Chipping Norton set’; that another, Andy Coulson, proceeded directly from resigning from the Screws over the conviction of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire to running David Cameron’s press office. Similar stories, of course, abound when it comes to News International’s relationship to the police.
And if the great and the good should not play ball with Murdoch - well, that was their right. His papers, however, had a way of finding things out, of gathering dirt and slinging it at the most inopportune moments. In a society so utterly riven with corruption, hypocrisy and deception, rotting - as the old saying goes - from the head down, the threat of blackmail was, alas, all too real for spineless politicians and police to call Murdoch’s bluff.
When this protection racket started to collapse, then, all manner of people were trapped, as it were, in the rubble. Not once in his short reign has David Cameron looked quite so disoriented as the week in which the Dowler scandal erupted; and Scotland Yard was shaken as badly as it had been since the Macpherson report, ultimately seeing its top two officers resign on one gory weekend.
This has produced a moment of considerable instability in the system of relationships that constitutes the bourgeois establishment. It is expressed in the parade of wronged celebrities (and, indeed, ‘ordinary people’) that troop to the stand at the Leveson inquiry; and also in the desperate scramble of the Met to reassert its authority. It must be a bitterly ironic experience for Rupert Murdoch - it is exactly the sort of situation from which an operator as savvy and ruthless as he is would normally turn into a fat profit; but he is in precisely the worst imaginable position to do so.
The attempt by the establishment to repair the damage contains dangers of its own. The most likely outcomes of the Leveson inquiry remain either some form of statutory regulation of the press by government or some kind of toughened-up ‘self-regulation’ - the infamous ‘Press Complaints Commission with teeth’ option.
We have repeatedly declared our opposition to both these options. We do not consider it prudent to sign over sweeping powers to determine what papers may or may not publish to the government, or some wing or another of the bureaucracy (including, of course, the legal bureaucracy of judges and so forth). These people are the enemies of political liberty - and, let us not forget, Murdoch found it easy enough to buy them, anyway.
As for the PCC, it will remain - for whatever is left of its miserable existence - the craven creature of unscrupulous media barons. The appointment of one or two ‘non-media’ members will change nothing, just as limited workers’ representation on the boards of German companies does not exactly halt exploitation. As for the notional ‘teeth’, it is worth noting - again - that, had the PCC any serious regulatory power to begin with, it would have been brought to bear not on the News of the World, but The Guardian, which it censured for ‘victimising’ poor old Rupert Murdoch.
What ‘code’, moreover, will either body enforce? The exceptional use of phone hacking should not be ruled out in principle: a corrupt ruling class forever tries to hide its activities, and sometimes underhand methods are needed to bring things into the cold light of public scrutiny. This even goes for ‘invading people’s private lives’ - as a commonly cited example goes, does a homophobic rabble-rouser have any right to keep his encounters with rent-boys a secret? For that matter, did Chris Huhne have the right to conceal his infidelity from the public, when the very woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair was involved in producing electoral material that painted him as an impeccable ‘family man’?
The idea that state bureaucrats or the patsies of media moguls can be relied upon to call a case one way or the other is transparently risible. Intrusive celebrity tittle-tattle is irritating enough; but the proposed cures are certainly worse than the disease.
We demand, rather, the end to advertising subsidies, which afford the bourgeoisie in its collective existence an effective veto over the content of public discourse; meanwhile, the workers’ movement needs its own press, its own mass media independent of the ruling class - something utterly incompatible with bureaucratic regulation of ‘press ethics’.