Murdoch bites back
The News International owner has his moment of revenge on David Cameron writes Paul Demarty - but the establishment is the real victim
The usual function of a public judicial inquiry is to bore everyone slowly to death of its remit, before delivering a convenient whitewash.
Perhaps that is exactly what David Cameron had in mind when he convened the Leveson inquiry. Last summer, the phone-hacking story was rapidly extending its tentacles into every upper echelon of society; something had to be done to slow down its spread. Who better to turn to than a judge, to help kick the thing into the long grass?
Unfortunately for him, it has hardly turned out like that. The reasons are various. Firstly, there is the interest Murdoch’s rivals have in sticking the knife in where the opportunity arises - though this is more true of The Guardian and The Independent than other outlets, which are generally complicit in the sort of thing over which Murdoch’s papers have come to grief.
Secondly, there is the small matter of the Labour Party. The latter’s strategic refusal to differentiate itself politically from Cameron in any meaningful way, for fear of being judged ‘fiscally irresponsible’ by ‘middle class swing voters’ (or, what is the same thing, the bourgeoisie), has left it peculiarly reliant on those moments when bad news haunts the government. All parties, of course, are implicated in Murdoch’s power-broking; but it is inevitably harder for an incumbent government to dissociate itself from him - particularly a Tory government, always more obviously in the pocket of the wealthy. Ed Miliband and his allies thus feel they have something of a free hand in hammering Cameron.
On the Hunt
Finally, and perhaps most ominously for Cameron, it is increasingly clear that Murdoch (and the press more generally) has turned on him. The latter’s support for Alex Salmond in Scottish elections is one, early sign - but it should not be forgotten that it was a Murdoch paper that broke the Peter Cruddas ‘cash for access’ scandal.
Any doubt on this score should have been thoroughly dispelled by last week’s hearings at the Leveson inquiry, which saw both Rupert and James Murdoch testifying. Both had been coached to give exactly the right answers, no matter how implausible, to avoid dropping themselves in it.
This shield of denial, however, was not large enough to accommodate culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was dropped in it by the younger Murdoch’s submission of a new tranche of incriminating emails. The background, as many will remember, was Vince Cable being caught by Sunday Telegraph journalists claiming he was going to nix Murdoch’s attempt to take a 100% stake in BSkyB; amid accusations of bias, Cameron handed the brief to Jeremy Hunt.
Hunt proclaimed he was approaching the deal in an apolitical, “quasi-judicial” manner - by which he meant the official image of the judiciary as an impartial dispenser of an impersonal law. Of course, justice is, by and large, for sale to the highest bidder; and in this respect, Hunt had impeccable ‘quasi-judicial’ credentials.
Murdoch junior provided extensive documentary evidence to the effect that Hunt’s office was squarely behind the BSkyB takeover from the off, that he or his aides had been treated to various freebies courtesy of the Murdochs (notably a Take That concert, a slightly worrying treat for a minister of culture), and that in the early stages of the crisis over the phone hacking of teenage murder victim Milly Dowler, Hunt remained on the look-out for ways to complete the deal successfully.
Hunt has defended himself in two, more or less equally implausible, ways. Firstly, there is the ‘shit rolls downhill’ tactic - his aide, Adam Smith, has had to take the flak for ‘improper’ relations with lobbyists. The notion that Adam Smith really was a serviceable meat shield between Hunt and the Murdoch empire is, as Dostoevsky would put it, a ‘stick with two ends’: viz, if it is true, Hunt is incompetent; and if it is false, Hunt is dishonest and corrupt.
To bolster that flimsy case, Hunt further claims that Frédéric Michel, the lobbyist in question, was exaggerating his influence over Hunt to please his bosses. This may even be true to an extent - but if all Michel’s damaging allegations were false, in particular a ‘sneak preview’ of a significant Hunt speech, it would have been quite impossible for James Murdoch not to twig that he was being taken for a ride. The honourable member for South West Surrey’s chances of surviving a cabinet reshuffle are slim - should he avoid a brisk shove onto his own sword in the interim.
The other headline testimony came from the patriarch himself. This was, for the most part, self-serving. As far as the phone-hacking affair went, he pleaded ignorance as to its extent at the News of the World, and claimed that the dirt had been withheld from him by the likes of Colin Myler, the paper’s last editor, and its chief lawyer, Tom Crone.
This may backfire on him - Crone, in particular, has already resisted attempts to paint him as the top man in the cover-up. His unwillingness to play patsy has already delivered Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s former chief lieutenant, into the tender attentions of the Metropolitan Police. Brooks had a direct line to Murdoch, with whom she was personally as well as professionally close. The more alienated former employees like Crone and Myler become, the more likely they will be to take down the Murdochs with them.
In particular, given the report of the culture, sport and media select committee on phone hacking, published this week, Murdoch may want to tread carefully. Discrepancies between the accounts of senior and junior figures are seized on to produce a report absolutely damning of the Murdochs, accusing them of not being fit to run a major corporation, and raising the prospect of criminal proceedings against high-profile individuals who misled parliament. How hard will it be to turn Tom Crone into a witness for the prosecution?
After all, is this not precisely the game Murdoch is playing with Cameron? Though relatively circumspect, despite utterly ludicrously claims that he had never secured favours from a prime minister, acidic side comments abounded about almost every major political figure for the last few years. Asked if, upon meeting David Cameron for the first time, he considered him a light-weight, Murdoch slyly replied: “Not then.” If the political class has discovered the requisite intestinal fortitude to disown Murdoch, then the latter is quite prepared to make good on the veiled threat he has issued to every political leader for decades - we have the dirt; if you do not play ball, we will do you in.
It has often been remarked - in this paper and elsewhere - that the Murdoch scandal has opened a window onto the shady ways of the establishment. What is perhaps more remarkable is that, since The Guardian finished the first lot of heavy lifting last June, the establishment has done most of the damage itself, in a flurry of mutual accusations and desperate arse-covering. Their cosy lash-up exposed, every partner in the deal - the Murdochs, the News International employees sacrificed to save them, the police, the media as a whole and the political class - has been quite desperate to dish the dirt on everyone else. If ever there was a demonstration of that old adage about honour among thieves, this is it.
The question is not whether we will return to ‘business as usual’ - this, all things being equal, is more or less inevitable. If Murdoch’s interests in this country do not survive, others will replace them; slowly, the links between the different fractions of the bourgeois elite will be reforged. The question is: how much damage will need to be repaired? Will it cost Murdoch another newspaper, the Met another figurehead, her majesty her government?
Most importantly: what opportunities will the left and workers’ movement take hold of? Once the establishment - in a year, or two years, or even longer - finally manages to close ranks, we will be back to ‘business as usual’ in another sense: the most powerful enemy of the ruling class will not be so very much itself, and will be the left once more. The bourgeois press, whose centrality to bourgeois political rule cannot be overestimated, will have gone through its lowest ebb of legitimacy perhaps in the whole history of this country.
This period is ideal for the workers’ movement to consolidate its own press, to produce a whole set of media organically connected to the lives of millions. The Sun could be replaced in every greasy spoon in the land with a mass-market paper that did not treat its readership as a pack of idiots concerned only with celebrities, tits and suspicious foreigners; and The Guardian could be supplanted by a broadsheet with more than an episodic commitment to high-quality investigative journalism. We could have rolling news channels and websites as spangly as the BBC’s - the whole kit and caboodle.
Alas, where the bourgeoisie has its establishment, we have our own. The labour movement is dominated by the bureaucracy - and bureaucratic propaganda sheets, from the occasional magazines of the trade unions to the Yawning Star, to the Brezhnev-era Pravda, are uniformly dull.
As for the far left, nominally the most far-sighted and critical-minded members of that movement, its press leaves more than a little to be desired. Socialist Worker, in pursuit of the Sun/Mirror market, apes the stupidity and delusional content of the tabloid press. The Socialist contains on average one page of material worth reading, with the other 11 utterly unchanging in content from week to week (the Weekly Worker office runs a tally of the number of times the words ‘cuts’ (previously ‘strike’) appears in the headlines of each issue of The Socialist - the mean average is currently around seven). For both the official and the far left, criticism is intolerable - and so, development of a meaningful discourse in its press is impossible.
There is immense potential for a diverse and challenging workers’ press with a genuine mass appeal, against which even the likes of Murdoch could not compete - but to achieve that potential, we will need to challenge the dominance of the labour bureaucracy and the petty, self-interested sect regimes that will sing only the tune of official optimism.