A spectacular sequence of events has culminated in a united House of Commons celebrating the way it forced Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation to withdraw its bid to buy the 60% of BSkyB it did not already own: a bid opposed by a majority of the public from the day it was announced.
The explosive revelations about phone-hacking and payments to police officers drove Murdoch to close the News of the World, the UK’s best-selling Sunday newspaper, in the hope that surgery would halt the spread of hostility triggered by The Guardian’s story that one of the mobile phones whose voice-mails had been hacked had been a schoolgirl who went missing nearly a decade ago, and was subsequently found dead.
The story was neatly timed to appear in the last days of a public consultation on whether the BSkyB bid should be waived through. The solicitor representing the dead girl’s family was – scarcely coincidentally – also the solicitor for several of the celebrities who were suing the News of the World for hacking their voice mail. The Guardian has been campaigning for four years to expose the hacking scandal: how helpful that this latest shock was only ready to publish at the point of maximum support for their associated campaign, to block the BSkyB bid.
Politicians have tripped over each other to distance themselves from the man that many of them had courted so assiduously in the past, in their then belief – mistaken, in my view – that he had significant power to influence voters (there is no evidence that voters are influenced by the newspapers they read), or to set agendas (recent research shows that non-readers of the press have almost identical viewpoints on major issues to readers).
The Guardian continues to nurture the fantasy (printed again last week) that Mrs Thatcher’s friendship with Murdoch was instrumental in both the launch of Sky Television and its later merger with BSB to form BSkyB (she had nothing to do with either). The New York Times attributed the UK’s failure to join the euro to Murdoch’s single-handed efforts (he played a minor role, compared with – say – Gordon Brown, or Paul Dacre of the Mail: and to the extent they succeeded, thank goodness).
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Of course, it is hugely welcome that political leaders have renounced kowtowing to press barons (let’s see how they feel when next the Daily Mail berates them). Of course, it is welcome that at last there will be a judge-led inquiry into phone-hacking, payments to police, the failures of press self-regulation and relations between the press and politicians. The recent spate of arrests may well be followed by many more, so prosecutions and imprisonment are likely. Excellent.
It is also welcome that the spin-off of Sky News, negotiated between Ofcom and News Corporation so as to clear the way for the BSkyB deal, has been abandoned: it put the future of Sky News (which has been exhaustive in its coverage of the News of the World story and its ramifications) in doubt.
But let us not kid ourselves as to the significance of the withdrawal of the BSkyB bid. The press interests who had campaigned most vehemently against it (not understanding its significance or motivation) will discover that they have changed nothing in terms of their own long-term survival. The police sources that leaked details of imminent arrests to Nick Davies at The Guardian are no more heroic than the ones that leaked information from the Police National Computer to investigators working for hundreds of Fleet Street journalists.
The House of Commons has announced itself as ready to pre-empt the processes it put in place less than a decade ago, in another cross-party agreement, whereby politicians would be excluded from decisions about mergers. The media regulator, Ofcom, has shown its willingness to manipulate evidence and play politics: an unattractive development. And state regulation of the press would put us on a par with Hungary.
When the euphoria of the moment has passed, and the dragon-slaying duly celebrated, we will still have to deal with what promises to be a tsunami of revelations about widespread press misbehaviour; with a parade of flagellant politicians bemoaning their past weakness; with reluctant police and press witnesses at the judge-led inquiry; and with the dilemma of how to put the PCC (or its replacement) on a footing whereby proprietors, editors and journalists understand the need for effective self-regulation, to avoid a much worse outcome.
None of this will lead to higher sales of newspapers: indeed, as scandal-mongering diminishes (if it does), the fall in readership may accelerate. Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian may now say that he never intended for the News of the World to close: but what else did he expect? Even the “best” newspapers may struggle to survive, and those that do may well be dependent on barons and oligarchs for that survival. The highly stable balance of eight competing newspaper groups we have witnessed for 20 years, may yet seem – despite the steady decline in circulation, over-reliance on gossip and growing evidence of corruption – like a golden age when we look back in a few years’ time.
Roy Greenslade has responded to David Elstein here in his Guardian Blog