There is hardly a dearth of commentary surrounding the corruption and criminality of the News of the World. Endless articles, documentaries, televised select committees and rolling news coverage have branded each detail of the scandal, and each connection to the highest levels of the police and the government, into our collective consciousness. News International, Murdoch’s vast media empire, has never before been subject to such rigorous and relentless scrutiny. Let’s be honest; never have critics felt brave enough to speak out so loudly before.
The events of the last few days may well prove to be game-changing however. Up until now, the dominant narrative of the scandal has been lifted straight out of Star Wars. The many-tentacled beast of News International has been pretty convincing as The Empire, with Rupert Murdoch playing a starring role as a sort of wrinkled, decrepit Darth Vader trying desperately to maintain an impenetrable defense of ignorance (“This is the most humble day of my life, I had no idea I was choking you with my mind.”). Opposite numbers Tom Watson, Chris Bryant and The Guardian have been incredibly entertaining as a sort of piously liberal-left Rebel Alliance. The beauty of this narrative is that it allows us to view the shocking revelations in a nice, cosy Good vs Evil context, in which the champions of justice, ethical journalism and morality have triumphed over the “bad apples” of British journalism; Mulcaire, Coulson and Brooks et al. This is not a new phenomenon. We all love a juicy story with a Goody and a Baddy and a fairly simple plot, and the press love to deliver. Besides, Murdoch is a perfect Baddy; the power-crazed octogenarian is better than a Bond villain, and far more sinister. This might seem a tad facetious, but as I write Channel 4 are airing a documentary called Murdoch: The Mogul Who Screwed The News. Make no mistake: right now, the story is that one bad man and his naughty papers have brought shame on the vast majority of honest, upstanding journalists who work hard to bring you the Great British Press.
But accusations from anonymous sources that phone hacking was “routine” at The Sunday Mirror, and the subsequent investigation it has sparked, could alter that narrative. Many have suspected that News of the World was not alone in its’ use of illegal techniques, and indeed Paul McMullan, the former NotW journo who was caught on tape by Hugh Grant, alleged that The Daily Mail was “as dirty as anyone”. Even at the Guardian, David Leigh openly admitted listening to voicemails and ‘blagging’ back in 2006. just check out the phone hacking and Not for nothing have some in the main stream press (such as Paul Dacre of The Daily Mail, Andrew Gilligan and Mary Riddell of The Telegraph and even Bill Keller of the New York Times) been issuing dark warnings about the importance of a Free Press. By Free Press they mean a press free of any significant regulation or accountability, a press which operates in a genuinely free market.
We live in the post-Thatcher era, where the free market system is assumed to have become an entrenched reality. This isn’t at all true of course, at least in the sense that economists would use the term ‘free market’, but this shouldn’t really affect the orthodox approach to political rhetoric, because economists are almost all deficit deniers and not to be trusted. All the same, the kind of free markets which Adam Smith and David Ricardo talked about were exactly that; markets in which the exchange of goods and services took place between private individuals without the state being even slightly involved. Most people agree that free markets are actually not a great idea, and this is why the strict regulation of goods and services such as food, alcohol, mortgages and pharmaceuticals is not a particularly controversial subject. Neither is VAT for that matter, or the EU trade tariffs that decimate African farmers’ profits. In the West, free markets are really something that happen to other people. Poor people. Who need aid and development loans from the IMF.
Somehow though, the print media remains the exception to the rule. Newspapers and magazines in Britain are regulated by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), an organisation with no legal power over any newspaper or magazine whatsoever. The PCC is dependent on funding levied from the press, and editors of major newspapers sit on its executive board. Evidence of just how toothless this so-called ‘self-regulation’ is is provided by a very recent case indeed. In May of this year, the PCC censured The Daily Telegraph for covertly recording Vince Cable. That is, it criticised the paper, but no action was taken against it.
The justification for this lack of regulation is that to do otherwise would be to proscribe the press, curtailing free speech and preventing newspapers from investigating matters of public interest. This argument is not entirely without merit; nobody wants a 1984-style propaganda press which is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the state, and free speech is certainly an important aspect of any democratic society. But it’s worth noting that other media formats are much more heavily regulated than newspapers. The BBC for example is a publicly owned body subject to very heavy regulation indeed, and this doesn’t seem to prevent a decent standard of journalism.
Strip away the rhetoric for a moment and it’s clear that the British print media is running wild and unchecked. We might fear the possibility of a neutered, state-controlled press. But we should also fear the unchecked influence of a free market press. Put aside all the idyllic notions of protecting the public interest; newspaper owners want three things: influence, circulation and profit. Given enough influence and circulation, they may not even worry to much about the profit. This isn’t a new thing; Lord Beaverbrook, who owned The Daily Express in the 1930’s, famously once said “I run the paper for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive”. It’s worth remembering also that whilst there is nothing to stop anybody producing a newspaper, it helps rather a lot if you happen to be wealthy enough to buy or set up a newspaper, and the dominant economic class may not necessarily always be inclined to hold the dominant economic class to account. Many might well argue that this inconvenient truth renders the whole argument of an impartial press operating in the public interest entirely moot. What is more newspapers are power; restrict the ability to destroy someone professionally by detecting every detail of their private life and you restrict the power of newspaper owners, and the influence they can gain with that power.
It is becoming clear that the British Press has become (and may always have been) a modern day Mafia operating in plain sight. Sure, maybe NotW has proved to be the most stark example of that, and maybe the ever-deeper depths which they have sunk too have shocked even the most hardened Fleet Street hack. But we should understand News International in the context in which they have prospered and flourished for decades. News International is not The Empire, it is the Corleone Family, and Murdoch is a particularly ruthless Godfather. There are other prominent families, of course, but News International has run the gauntlet of competition and won precisely because it has been the most ruthless, it has secured the highest circulation, and it has won the most influence. Should the Corleone Family fall, the Tattaglia Family will be waiting in the wings. Or somebody else.
We cannot avoid the fact that the system itself is to blame, not Murdoch and News International, nor even the fawning politicians who have tacitly courted his invaluable support. After all, just like the Mafia, the papers deliver the voters, guaranteed, and just like the Mafia, they will destroy those that stand in their way.