Barnett is wrong; the public had little to do with Murdoch's fall

Was it the public's outrage that brought down the News of the World? And Ed Miliband's courage that has led to a wide-reaching Press inquiry? Anthony Barnett thinks so, but perhaps he was being a little too generous...

Daniel Jones
26 July 2011

Anthony Barnett’s recent OurKingdom article, ‘After Murdoch’ provides a sophisticated analysis of the phone hacking scandal but is also a valiant attempt to find in that scandal some cause for hope for the recovery of democracy in the United Kingdom. The humbling of Murdoch is a happy event. However, we should not allow ourselves to be seduced by the pleasure of seeing the mighty laid low into thinking that it creates space for the growth of a new political order.   

I would suggest that Anthony is only able to put a cautiously optimistic gloss on the scandal by overemphasising the role played by the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband and that of the public.

He argues that Ed Miliband has played a courageous, indeed, ‘pivotal’ role in the affair. However, as he also points out, when the revelation of the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone was made, Miliband was a leader with his back to the wall who had nothing to lose from unleashing an attack on the power of the Murdoch press. Even so, his initial call for Rebekah Brooks to ‘consider her position’ was the least that he could plausibly have said and was hardly a call to arms. Since then he has ridden the waves with some aplomb and offered a happy contrast to Cameron’s floundering. But we should stand back and consider his record since becoming leader. Before the Milly Dowler story broke, he had never displayed a willingness to challenge the power of the Murdoch press. The running on the phone hacking issue had not been made from the Labour front bench but by a few backbenchers, celebrities and Guardian journalists.

We also should consider how completely the Labour leadership has become part of the political, business, media elite now widely and correctly referred to as the ‘political class’. In his reactions to the scandal Miliband has shown himself to be, in the best sense, an opportunist. But does his conduct since becoming leader suggest that he has the moral courage and independence to challenge the rotten political culture in which he was nurtured? The opinion polls suggest that the public are not yet convinced. On this, they are surely right.

However, if his role in this affair has been limited, that of the public has been even more so. Anthony states that it was because the politicians were aware of the scale public anger that they had to act and that a failure to act would have bought thousands onto the streets in protest. However, it is perhaps less likely that the revelations would have given rise to active protest than to a deepening in the public mood of quiet anger and helplessness that has been brought about by the banking crisis and the scandal of MPs expenses.

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The fact is that the power of the Murdoch press was well known throughout the United Kingdom before the events of the last 3 weeks and was tolerated. There was good evidence that the phones of a number of public figures had been tapped by the Murdoch press. The public did not rise up and demand change. Do they now demand significant change to the regulation and ownership of the press rather than the humbling of Murdoch and his cohorts? Will the events of the last 10 days leave people willing to embrace real alternatives to our current way of conducting politics or, after the scandal blows itself out with a few prosecutions, many apologies and the inevitably disappointing enquiries, will they be left more disillusioned than before?

This is a ‘scandal’ not a revolution or even a major shift in the way that people think about politics and society. It is a scandal that is working its way unpredictably and deliciously through the top of the political system but in which we, the public, are merely spectators. 

Amidst all the talk about a British ‘Tahrir Square’ it is salutary to remember certain facts. When the story of the Milly Dowler phone hacking broke there was a popular call for Rebekah Brooks to resign as chief executive of News International. She did not resign and showed no intention of doing so. Some 200 hundred people’s jobs were sacrificed in order that she could keep hers. However, 10 days after the scandal broke the BBC interviewed Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal on his yacht in the Mediterranean. He is not a British citizen but is a significant shareholder in News Corp. He stated that Rebekah Brookes should resign. The next day she resigned. Two days after that she was arrested. So much for people power.

If there is any reason for optimism, it is that the scandal has been caused by the overreaching of several political actors and that overreaching has exposed their weaknesses. The first element in the affair is the decline in the sales of the tabloid papers and the response of some elements of the tabloid press to adopt criminal methods on a significant scale. The second element was Rupert Murdoch himself: an old man who intended, somewhat optimistically, to keep his over-wieldy media empire in the hands of his family. To that end he installed his son James as Chairman of News International. James Murdoch was, it seems, a capable broadcasting executive but, disastrously, he had little understanding and little interest in the world of British tabloid journalism and lacked the will or the ability to act when the whiff of widespread rotten journalistic practice must have been unmistakable.

The next desperate actors were David Cameroon and George Osborne, who, despairing at their inability to break through public distrust of the Conservatives decided to embrace the Murdoch empire more closely and fervently than even Blair and Brown had done; taking Andy Coulson into Conservative Central Office and then into Downing Street.

What of the last desperate actor, the Metropolitan Police? Here I speculate, but I do not believe that the very close relationship between the Murdoch press and the Met was brought about solely or even mainly by the tabloids’ ability to bribe or blackmail senior police officers. Instead, I believe that history will show (and the evidence of senior Police officers before the Culture and Media select committee already suggests) that the police, who always had a good relationship with the tabloids, entered into a much closer relationship in the last 10 years as they sensed that they were losing public confidence, through events such as the failure to investigate the murder to Stephen Lawrence to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. They decided to shore up public support through a ‘media strategy’ (as evidenced by Dick Fedorcio’s anxious avoidance of the term when questioned by the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on the 18th July) Just as the media strategies of British politicians inevitably involved cosying up to the Murdoch press, so too did theirs.

If these are the elements of the affair, what turned it into a disaster for the Murdochs was their failure to manage it effectively and the failure of their corporate and political allies to come to their defence. These failures betoken the weakness of an old man past his prime and a young man out of his depth. They do not sound the death knell for News Corp still less for the political system in which Rupert Murdoch has been such an important player.

Similarly, the scandal may have dramatically weakened David Cameroon. But we should remember that right now there is no radical alternative to his brand of politics on offer from any of the main political parties.

There are some easy lessons to be leant from this scandal. Reform of the framework of media ownership should take place. Our right to privacy must be robustly protected. This must be counterbalanced with a greater public right to know about public matters, which would in turn deprive the tabloids of their best justification for their illegal activities.

However, there is a deeper lesson which has yet to penetrate the public consciousness. The rule of law is the foundation of freedom and democracy. It is threatened because international corporations are now so powerful that they can excises disproportionate influence on the state.

Rupert Murdoch was party to the creation of this neo-liberal order. Perhaps his fall will portend its fall. But that fall is a long way off and the new order has not yet appeared on the horizon. An old man will be shuffled into retirement, his son’s succession is not assured but News Corp and it’s ‘values’ will live on. The power of such a corporation does not rest on the criminality of tabloid journalists. Its influence will be all the more insidious when its employees act within the letter of the law. 

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