21 August 2013

Dial M for Murdoch

I have had this book for several months but have been reluctant to open the cover, not because it was likely to be turgid or boring but because I feared that the content would both sadden and sicken me in terms of the conclusions I would be forced to draw about the decline of standards in public life. Although none of the content is now news, to read it collected together is an emotional rather than intellectual feat. It truly does describe, as its subtitle claims, how News International has been permitted through cowardice and greed to corrupt Britain.

I often think of involvement in politics as being a continuum that runs from truth to power. Anybody involved in making political decisions is forced to compromise and then tells their story about why that happened. So even Gandhi would have been hard pushed to claim he was entirely at the truth end of the spectrum. But British politics today is entirely focused on power, and money used as a tool to obtain greater power. In this world the perverse statement by James Murdoch to the Edinburgh Television Festival (August 2009, p. 90) creates no sense of dissonance: 'There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.'

The Murdoch press used phone hacking not primarily to garner stories that would sell newspapers. It was a strategy to gather dirt on the rich and powerful and to blackmail them into submission. The aim was to gain even greater control of the market for information by bullying Cameron and Hunt to allow News International to control 40 per cent of national newspapers and the UK's largest broadcaster (p. 89). The Murdoch family needed to get  control of the remaining 61% of the company’s shares and they needed to prevent politicians from blocking this. It was only the timely breaking of the scandal by The Guardian that put the wholly undemocratic and anti-competitive buyout on hold.

It helped me to have read Jon Ronson's book on psychopaths during the same month as Dial M, because it is apparent that many of those involved in this story are incapable of experiencing remorse or shame and spotting how these people abound in public life makes their behaviour seem more like a disability than evidence of moral decay more generally. But as a society we must find a way to protect ourselves against such people. In response to suggestions of press regulation, those who thrive in the murky and corrupt world of British public life raise objections around liberal values and human rights but, like James Murdoch's suggestion that what Sky is seeking to achieve is media competition in the public interest, this is deceitful guff.

Tom Watson makes clear that the way he and Nick Davies ferreted out the truth about the underbelly of the British media establishment was by using the mantra ‘follow the money’. Hence the inevitable conclusion of the Murdoch saga is that we urgently need to get money out of politics and competition into the media. The Office of Fair Trading exists to prevent exactly the sort of monopolistic domination that Sky has achieved in recent years, while the failure of successive governments to limit donations to political parties feeds into the same incestuous and corrupt relationships between politicians and media executives.

In spite of the work of lawyers and the courage of witnesses a year on from the publication of his report, Lord Leveson’s Inquiry has come to nothing. Politicians claim that they are forced to consider the press’s plan for self-regulation equally alongside Leveson’s independent proposals. Sky still dominates our media and the BBC, that should be our defence, has made a cowardly retreat in the face of political threats. Alan Rusbridger is still fighting the establishment but his paper is lonely and isolated, as it was throughout the years of Murdoch dominance. This autumn will be a watershed in our democratic history with the trials of Brooks, Coulson et al. We should be watching carefully to see whether, in the end, truth or power holds sway.

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