Hack-gate: the latest cultural contradiction of British conservatism?

The Murdoch-owned British Sunday tabloid, 'News of the World', has sunk deeper into an ongoing hacking scandal. Given that the right-wing tabloid press is a bastion of the British conservative establishment, how will the scandal affect the character of UK conservatism?
William Davies
7 July 2011

In between expressing outrage and disgust at the alleged behaviour of The News of the World in hacking the phones of murder victims and the families of dead soldiers, liberal-minded figures are no doubt experiencing tinges of delight at the sudden vulnerability of Murdoch-owned News International. Ed Miliband even felt so emboldened as to demand that Rebekah Brooks, Chief Executive of News International in Britain ‘consider her position’ – scarcely the most draconian response to the scandal, but not something that one could have imagined being uttered by a leader of the Labour Party at any other time in the 19 years since The Sun newspaper proudly claimed to have been ‘wot won’ the 1992 election for the Conservative Party.

As the gruesome details of the mechanics of tabloid voyeurism trickle out day by day, a familiar feeling is returning. It is the same feeling that accompanied The Daily Telegraph’s protracted exposure of the domestic frivolities of our political representatives just over two years ago, during the MP’s expenses scandal. It is the same feeling which arose periodically following the financial crisis, whenever emails from bankers – such as the inimitable ‘Fabulous Fab Toure’ – emerged to reveal the glee with which financial stability was undermined. The revelations of Wikileaks have had a similar effect.

The popular and critical response has been the same in each case: we suspected things were bad, but never that bad. The irascible Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has argued that there is an element of conceit here, and that the main function of Wikileaks in particular was to make public what everyone already knew but pretended not to. But would anyone in their worst imaginings have supposed that The News of the World was involved in deleting the voicemail messages from the mobile phone of a murdered child? In this case a line has been crossed in a way that may not (unfortunately) be the case for those other landmarks in elite transparency.

The greater significance of ‘hack-gate’ will lie in how it affects the character of British conservatism more generally. Conservatism, as a cultural and political movement, is intrinsically unwieldy and self-destructive, as hack-gate may now be demonstrating once more. From Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution onwards, conservatism has achieved its identity through what it rejects and despises. It projects a pessimistic scepticism towards political deliberation as a basis for authority, insisting that modern societies are too complex, human beings too different, and language too frail, for us to reason our way towards a collective destination.

So what should rule us instead? The vulnerability of conservatism is its multiplicity of answers to this question. Following Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School of economics, neo-liberals suggested that the logic and mechanisms of market prices should substitute for popular will, and simply need endorsing and extending by the state. Cold War intellectuals and policy elites in the US, in both Republican and Democratic parties, concluded that only the military and executive branch of government could secure the goals of democracy, leading to the movement which became known as ‘neo-conservatism’. Various versions of romantic or nationalist conservatism appeal to tradition, values and community, as a counter-balance to the apparent relativism of modern cosmopolitan life.

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Creating any form of alliance between these various strands is a project fraught with difficulty. Often they are at loggerheads with one another. Romantic conservatives fear that the neo-liberal market is an even greater force for individualism and relativism than even the social movements of the 1960s (as both Red Tories and Blue Labour have recently argued). Meanwhile, neo-liberals fear that neo-conservatives want to break the bank in an effort to load up on weaponry, and can point to Ronald Reagan’s huge deficits as evidence of this. Neo-conservatives, on the other hand, simply despair at the political and strategic naiveté of whichever political party they happen to be advising at the time.

There are, perhaps, only two cases of public institutions successfully uniting these disparate strands in recent times. The first is that of rightwing political parties during the 1980s, which forged coalitions of diverse economic and cultural interests, primarily in order to defeat socialism. But the failure of Britain’s Conservative Party to win a General Election in nearly two decades, added to the nightmare that is the US Republican Party’s current choice of Presidential candidates, suggests that this wing of conservatism has never adequately rebuilt itself since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the second is that of the rightwing tabloid media.

The inconsistency and incoherence of the rightwing tabloid press have always been part of its popular appeal and political strength, thereby harnessing the cultural contradictions of conservatism to its own advantage. It has represented the interests of big business and ‘white van man’ with equal gusto; it has portrayed society as decadent and lawless on one page, whilst celebrating hedonistic consumption on the next. It has demanded that the state look after the old and infirm in one editorial, then raged against the ‘nanny state’ in the next. Its exuberance lies in its irresponsibility. The tabloid media might almost have shared the motto of the French social theorist, Michel Foucault when he wrote “do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order” – except that our bureaucrats and our police are now rapidly discovering that their papers are anything but in order.

While the rest of the conservative establishment was tearing itself apart in Thatcher and Reagan’s wake, the tabloid press was benefiting and growing in influence. When Conservative politicians were caught in sex scandals during the 1990s, the tabloids harnessed outrage to sell papers. When investment banks nearly collapsed the global economy in 2008, under the guise of market ‘efficiency’, the tabloids harnessed outrage to sell papers. Whether a teenager had committed murder or been murdered, The Sun and its cohort scarcely cared, so long as it was outrageous. The establishment could be represented as both institutionally racist (the Stephen Lawrence case) and institutionally liberal (the ‘flood’ of immigration), without any concern for consistency.

Free from the constraints of consistency or responsibility, the conservative media has been the great survivor of the ‘new right’ coalition that emerged in the 1970s, and fragmented in the 1990s. One question that hack-gate poses is how much longer it can retain this status.

News International has used its power with impunity over the years, to attack whomever seemed most vulnerable that week. Even its favoured allies – business, the police, the Conservative Party, popular sentiment – have been attacked, when they’ve failed to live up to the standards of the past, be that the remembered 1980s or the imagined 1940s. But it is now these very institutions that are waged against News International. This is no longer a phoney melancholic politics, in which the establishment is symbolically trashed for not being strong enough, traditional enough or Thatcherite enough. The power of business (via withdrawn advertising revenue), the police, the Conservative Party and popular sentiment are now being turned against Rupert Murdoch. A new front has opened up in the internal contradictions of conservatism. As conservative commentator Peter Oborne writes, David Cameron is currently caught in the crossfire.

The scandals surrounding MP’s expenses, the financial crisis and Wikileaks were each partly conditioned (or accelerated) by the capabilities of new technologies, to audit elites in previously impossible ways. The expansion of technologies of transparency into the bastions of the establishment and into private lives has further undermined conservatism as a cultural and political movement. But apart from the fact that mobile phones have only become normal parts of British society in the past dozen years, it is difficult to make a similar argument for the scandal currently engulfing News International.

So is this a distinctly contemporary crisis, or could it have happened at any point in the last thirty years? As with other crises of conservatism, the trends have been pointing in this direction for some time, but technology has accelerated them, in two ways in particular.

Firstly, newspapers such as The News of the World have been employing a business model in which greater and greater risk-taking – including, it transpires, criminal activities – were inevitable. The market for shock, voyeurism and scandal is an ultra-competitive one, because the consumer’s expectations are constantly rising, just as is true in consumer electronics. What was shocking and revelatory in 1990 would no longer appear so now, any more than one would now pay several hundred pounds for a mobile phone the size of a brick. The tabloid press specialise in going a bit too far, but thereby ensure that ‘a bit too far’ is an endlessly receding target. The rise of the internet, and the shock, voyeurism and scandal which it has normalised, makes things harder still for the tabloids. We have known for some months now of laws being ignored, in pursuit of celebrity gossip, but the argument has been largely confined to Westminster, the courts and Fleet Street. Only with allegations of a child’s murder investigation being interfered with has a clear taboo been breached – ironically a taboo that the tabloids have credited themselves with defending in the past. And we still don’t know how much more is still to come out.

Secondly, if the tabloid press was the great survivor of the 1980s ‘new right’, this was because it held a monopoly on one crucial component of how that conservative coalition held together: emotional expression. Ridiculing opponents (especially socialists and the ‘politically correct’) and despairing at the lunacy of the modern world were the common currency in which all the factions of conservatism traded. And if ridicule and despair were the currency, then the conservative media were the banks, licensed to issue, distribute and inflate it where they saw fit. The internet has now removed this monopoly, offering innumerable new platforms through which to grumble, cackle and bemoan the absurdities of modern life. Most importantly in this case, it also offers platforms on which to ridicule and despair of the press, including the tabloid press. Whatever power News International might have held in the 1990s, through its control of the means of outrage, it can no longer be at all sure that the conservative populace might not now, like Einstein’s monster, turn against it in disgust. This is at least a technical possibility, in a way that was not true a decade ago.

All modern conservatives have a love-hate relationship with the establishment, which ultimately is their undoing. They can never really make up their mind whether they want more government or less. Complaints about bureaucrats, ‘red tape’ and tax are matched by despair that the state has lost its nerve in various ways, until this ambivalence is eventually overwhelmed by events. Political leaders and parties that appeal to ‘traditional values’ are undermined by revelations of fraud and sexual intrigue; financial markets that are untouchable because ‘self-correcting’ end up costing the taxpayer a figure that is (according to the National Audit Office) more than eight times the annual budget of the NHS; military efforts to impose democracy eventually retreat into actual negotiation. That News International profited fabulously from highlighting all of these hypocrisies and U-turns in the past does not mean that the public won’t take some glee in witnessing the latest contradiction of conservatism: Rupert Murdoch’s inner circle being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, cheered on by the families of murdered children, military charities and – no doubt – the vast majority of the ‘great British public’. How loudly the Conservative Prime Minister is prepared to cheer may be crucial to how this conflict plays out.

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