And so the spell is broken. After decades of wielding an untouchable power, the Emperor is now jeered by the rabble he did so much to rouse. The hacking scandal highlights not only the failings of our current media model but also the realities of a captured state and a crumbling democratic facade; none of which can be resolved by public enquiries alone. Beyond the muck-raking of the tabloid press lay much deeper problems: Britain has lost the institutional controls to check power.
The “three pillars of the neoliberal state” are collapsing like dominoes. 2008 saw the fall of banking, 2009 the fall of parliament and now, in 2011, the unthinkable – the car crash finale of Murdoch’s reign. Both the banking bailout and the current storm expose the extent to which the British state has been co-opted by the powers it is supposed to constrain. This silent creep of parasitism has grown so putrid that the host is beginning to buckle and convulse ever more frequently.
There is a worrying lesson to these collapses: that without swift and overwhelming action power reasserts itself. If the initial storm can be weathered, the protagonists need only wait until the next big story arrives. And they know it. At that point they begin the slow and quiet work of rebuilding. Banks are now more powerful than ever, and parliament has undergone not a single reform of any substance. To avoid the same fate with Murdoch anger cannot be allowed to dissipate, sated by enquiries and consultations. It needs to be used, fast, and with firm goals in mind: to re-establish proper boundaries between corporation and state, to reform our laws on media ownership and to remove Murdoch from Britain.
Even a fortnight ago, this would have been both unthinkable and suicidal to attempt. But the scale of corruption now being exposed is so vast that the entire landscape has been transformed. The hacking of a murdered girl’s phone is not the issue here, grotesque as it is. Rather it is the apparent collusion to conceal, or at least inability to scrutinise, which encompasses both main political parties, the current Prime Minister and a former Prime Minister, the media, the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Press Complaints Commission and the Independent Police Complaints Commission. What is taking shape is a pervasive web of corruption at the heart of the British state.
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As recently as Thursday’s Question Time, when the story had already gone nuclear, Murdoch’s puppet-like grip on the Conservative party was still visible. Cameron and his ministers were adamant that the scandal and the BSkyB bid were entirely different things; the bid would be judged solely on whether it impacted on “media plurality”. Amazingly, they were still attempting to waive through the expansion of a firm at the centre of major criminal allegations. To suggest, by implication, that this scandal has nothing to do with Murdoch’s existing share of our media was staggeringly mendacious. It is precisely because of his overwhelming control – a lack of plurality - that these crimes were overlooked.
‘…they have no predators, they are untouchable, they laugh at the law and they sneer at parliament’ (Tom Watson MP, 2010)
Remarkable throughout is the casualness and swagger of Murdoch’s impropriety. Andy Hayman, the Assistant Commissioner who led the Met’s first investigation, was not only wined and dined by the ageing don, but rewarded with a job writing for The Times – just two months after leaving the Met. Tony Blair’s obeisance in office (and before) is well known, but it now appears that Murdoch sent Blair to help bury the hacking story; the bronzed lickspittle apparently pleaded with Brown to call off Tom Watson. Even when finally backed into a corner the contempt for parliament never waned; Ed Miliband has already been threatened with reprisals over his criticism of Rebekah Brooks. And it has now been suggested that “massive quantities” of emails have been deleted by a News International executive to eliminate any incriminating communications. These are the workings of a protection racket, not a news agency.
But gauging just how much damage these events will cause Murdoch is not straightforward. NewsCorp have now abandoned their plan to buyout the rest of BSkyB, for the time being at least. Had they pressed ahead, it is unlikely they would have been found “fit and proper” by the Competition Commission; it wouldn’t just have been the buyout that was lost, but even NewsCorp’s existing 39.1% stake in the company. If OFCOM is now to make this call, it will have to do so proactively; a much trickier proposition.
NewsCorp is, plainly, not fit and proper to run a bath, let alone vast sections of British media. As well as its share in BSkyB, its continued ownership of The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times must now be seriously questioned. BSkyB pays the bills, but it’s his papers that police the empire.
There is no reason why the British public should tolerate Murdoch any longer. He is not a British citizen, nor does he pay UK taxes. He has over the years established a solid reputation for intimidation and treachery. His organisations, if not him personally, have now been found working with known criminals, bribing police and carrying out “industrial scale” criminal activity. His son has personally signed off payments to silence the victims. His contribution to Britain’s cultural landscape is marked by seediness and a peerless appetite for squalor, unhindered by any observable moral code or common decency. As Anthony Barnett argues, “media owners are public figures… we should be able to remove them”.
Even if successful, forcing Murdoch to divest his interests in UK media would not be adequate. There must now be changes to our media laws to bring them in line with most civilised democracies; the Berlusconi model has failed. British citizenship should be the minimum requirement to own British papers. Owners should be fully resident for tax purposes as is considered appropriate for parliamentarians – people who wield far less individual power than marauding press barons. Their companies should be paying full UK tax rather than operating elaborate offshore avoidance schemes. And finally, there must be the means to strip ownership from those guilty of criminality or major impropriety. Murdoch fails on every single count.
Reform of the media ownership laws is one clear route to that end, even if not a panacea for the wider malaise of print ‘churnalism’. As for the bigger picture, the closeness of government with business goes well beyond the media. Market forces now permeate almost every single area of the state, dissolving the line between public and private. The extent of corporate control and the scale of its damage is breathtaking: the trillion pound banking coup, the £250bn PFi scandal, the ongoing NHS privatisation, the privatised rail disaster, the attempted forest sell-off, the marketisation of education and universities, the revolving door between public and private sectors and now, the final push, Cameron’s Public Service Reform white paper. Moving beyond isolated cases of ‘regulatory capture’, the situation now constitutes state capture. It is no wonder the public are suffering from repeated crises; they have lost control of the state.