After Murdoch scandal?

Submitted by Matthew on 4 August, 2011 - 10:20

Someone once famously described the outbreak of World War One - how the powers, one after the other, were drawn into it. They were, he said, like mountaineers, roped together. First one fell, then another, and soon they were all falling, pulling each other into the abyss.

The Murdoch press scandal in its effects on British public life is a little like that. First came the discovery that the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked, that some messages had been deleted, with the effect that the police and her parents thought she was still alive and using her phone.

Where before people had not been all that concerned with the revelations that some of the royal wastrels had had phones hacked, the Dowler case caused widespread outrage. Suddenly the moral ground shifted under the feet of the arrogant and overconfident Murdoch press. Politicians of the three main parties, who had continued to court the likes of Rebekah Brooks and the Murdoch family, had their self-preservation instincts aroused. Their dealings with the Murdochs were now being put under the public spotlight.

Prime Minister Cameron had hired Coulson, a former News of the World editor, as his spin liar-in-chief, even after it became plain that he must have been implicated in illegal phone tapping. People are still asking Cameron why.

Then it came out that other papers too, Murdoch's competitors, had most likely used the illegal snooping methods for which the News of the World was being pilloried. The Mirror papers, and, it is rumoured, the very moral Daily Mail. Most likely others, too.

Then the focus shifted to corrupt relations between top police officers and the Murdoch press. It had caused scarcely a ripple in public life when, years ago, Rebekah Brooks admitted, before a Parliamentary Committee, that payments had been made to the police for information. Not so in the new climate. News of the World has closed down. Rebekah Brooks has been forced to resign, along with top police officers.

The Murdoch empire is being scrutinised in the USA in the light of the British revelations, and may yet be forcibly broken up.

Ed Milliband, after two decades in which the Labour Party leadership had publicly licked Murdoch's boots, was emboldened to launch a frontal attack on the Murdoch empire. Not brave, and very late, but nonetheless welcome.

Those still clinging to the mountain rocks feel the dead weight of those who have fallen into the abyss pulling on them. Cameron may yet be dislodged. A Royal Commission has been set up to enquire into the press.

The truth is that sections of the British ruling class have long regretted, some of them publicly, letting “foreigners” get a stranglehold on the British media and on British public life. Privately, the politicians who bowed to Murdoch must have resented the relationship. This, some of them now think, is the time when it may be “practical politics” to do something about it.

The British press is so world-class-awful that there is plenty of scope for reform. Not any sort of revolution, but reform. One of the remarkable things in the public discussion is the paucity of root-and-branch criticism of the system that allows Murdoch, in Britain's plutocratic “democracy”, to control the opinion forming and opinion shaping media.

Even if they were all lily-white slaves to the letter of all the laws, such a situation would be an outrage against democracy. Most likely it will continue to be an outrage against democracy.

What we need is a publicly-owned press with airtight guarantees of the right of reply and correction. That, we will not get as a result of the present crisis.

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