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A tale of two British summers: phone hacking and a royal baby

The royal birth is set to be the face of the 2013 summer, but to what extent does this reveal how little the media has changed since the phone hacking scandal in 2011? What happened to media reform?


Rupert Murdoch. Flickr/World Economic Forum. Some rights reserved.

Prepare for an avalanche of wild speculation, idle gossip, PR puffery and unadulterated joy – at least on behalf of the 46% of the British public (including only 29% of men) who claim they are ‘very or fairly interested’ in the royal baby. Unless you switch off your mobile, boycott the TV and take a detour to avoid every newsagent, you are going to be confronted by a single story (and even the Guardian’s ‘Republican’ button on its home page reduces, not abolishes, its royal baby coverage) that self-evidently appeals only to a minority of the population.

Strangely, the same news outlets who have been waiting so desperately for new Windsor stock to boost flagging ratings and declining circulations are not quite as absorbed with other polling minorities, like the 45% of the public who believe that the government’s austerity programme is ‘bad for the economy’ and that, despite George Osborne’s promise that the economy is moving out of intensive care, their own personal circumstances are going to get worse in the next year.

It is clearly not a significant story for the vast majority of the news media that 58% believe the government are handling the economy badly with 54% convinced that the cuts are being implemented ‘unfairly’. It is clearly not a story worth telling that many millions of British people think that the cuts are being introduced too fast and too deep or in fact, that they are unfair in being introduced at all. Instead, we are to have a summer dominated by reports of sporting victories, tropical heat waves and detailed analysis of the line of succession to the British throne – an agenda, in other words that is far more amenable to (and lucrative for) most proprietors and editors than asking tough questions about austerity or foreign policy.

Think back two years, however, and you will find both the public and the media preoccupied with something rather different: the fall-out from the phone hacking scandal that broke when the Guardian revealed that News of the World operatives had hacked into the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Two years ago, Rupert Murdoch had just shut the NOTW following a public campaign calling on advertisers to boycott the newspaper. The mood was such that the former Times assistant editor, Mary Ann Sieghart wrote about the ‘success of people’s power’ in making it normal, in fact virtually compulsory in polite company, to condemn Murdoch’s media power. Indeed, Labour leader Ed Miliband had just called for tough new rules on media ownership to curb Murdoch’s influence on British political culture. Most extraordinary of all, David Cameron condemned in Parliament the complicity of politicians and journalists – arguing that neither side wanted to antagonise the other for fear of losing their support – and announced that ‘it’s on my watch that the music has stopped’ and that ‘things have got to change.’

Two years on and little has changed. Downing Street is still in a tight grip with lobbyists, Miliband has failed to follow up his promise to curb the power of media moguls with a clear policy initiative, sections of the press are still capable of hateful coverage and some of the leading protagonists in the phone hacking scandal seem to have recovered their poise. Contrast Rupert Murdoch’s statement in 2011 that ‘…I have never tolerated the kind of behaviour that has been described over these past few weeks. It has no place at News Corporation’ with his private comments earlier this year that ‘I don’t know of anybody, or anything, that did anything that wasn’t being done across Fleet Street and wasn’t the culture. And we’re being picked on…’ Precisely what lessons been learned at the top?

Just as significantly, the process that was supposed to deliver justice to the victims of phone hacking and recommendations to secure an ethical press, the Leveson Inquiry, has stalled. This is not simply because of Cameron’s reluctance to push through the cross-party Royal Charter that is closest to the spirit of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, but more due to the fierce rearguard action against the Charter, orchestrated by the very moguls whose newspapers were implicated in the collusive relationships identified by Leveson during the Inquiry. Just as they intended, the determination to deliver meaningful reform to corrupt political and media cultures—so powerful back in 2011—has been diluted, sidetracked and undermined at every step of the way. The press barons latest effort to derail reform is their proposal for an Independent Press Standards Organisation that leaves intact the power of the proprietors who bankrolled the now discredited Press Complaints Commission. The name may have the changed but the interests remain the same.

True, the cross-party Royal Charter is hardly the instrument to transform our news media into fearless fighters against corruption and privilege and it has failed to capture the imagination of those who wanted to see real change to the power structures that dominate British life.

But the point is that the case for media reform, any media reform, is immediately suffocated by those with a stake in the status quo: politicians who dare not challenge press power and the media themselves who have little desire to report on, let alone to support, measures that might democratise access, empower ethical journalism or rein in the power of the moguls. A victory for the press barons in this case will only increase their confidence to maintain unaccountable media structures and unrepresentative news agendas as they are. 

We have learnt a lot about the relationship between political elites and the media since the phone hacking crisis first blew up two years ago. We now know, for example, about the influence of the ‘Chipping Norton set’, memorialised by Wikipedia as ‘a group of media, political and showbusiness acquaintances in and around the market town of Chipping Norton’; we now know of the extensive surveillance systems put in place by major western governments and the apparent willingness of leading internet companies to go along with them; we now know of the reluctance of recent UK governments to challenge the tax avoidance schemes of some of the biggest social media companies.

In this context of increasingly intimate media-state relations, now is not the time to forget about past crimes nor to bow down to press power and dismiss the possibilities of media reform – whether that takes the form of a Royal Charter underpinning ethical journalism, ownership limits on the largest media groups or the funding of marginalised voices and perspectives via a levy on our largest content intermediaries. We need to rediscover the energy and anger that was on display two years ago when the greed and self-interest of both politicians and the press were laid bare. We need to campaign for proposals to deliver a media system that speaks on behalf of ordinary people and not shareholders and that confronts power instead of bowing down before it. Without doing this, austerity will be harder to challenge, unjust wars harder to oppose and royal babies all the more likely to dominate our front pages.

About the author

Des Freedman (@lazebnicis Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘The Contradictions of Media Power’ (2014) and co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of ‘Misunderstanding the Internet’ (2nd edition, 2016).


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