For thirty years Rupert Murdoch has been both the most hated and the most feared media mogul in Britain. He may still be the most hated. But the fear has suddenly ebbed away. Ever since it was revealed that journalists at the News of the World, owned by Murdoch’s News International, have been hacking into the voicemails not just of politicians and celebrities but also of Millie Dowler, a teenage murder victim, Murdoch has been on the defensive as never before.
The scandal engulfing News International seems almost overnight to have transformed Britain’s political and media landscape. Murdoch has been forced to close down the News of the World, the best-selling newspaper in Britain and to give up his attempt to take full control of BSkyB, his moneyspinning satellite TV operation. Politicians who just weeks ago were desperate to smooze up to Murdoch to win his favours now queue piously to denounce his unethical behaviour. Not just politicians but the police, too, have been in cahoots with News International executives. A host of Britain’s most senior police officers were forced to parade themselves before a committee of MPs this week, to be humiliated on live TV for corruption and incomptetence.
One cannot but feel a sense of schadenfreude at the implosion of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Yet, however much we might despise Murdoch, his business methods and his journalistic ethics, we should nevertheless be wary of many of the arguments about how to set things right. There is a growing consensus that the problem lies in Murdoch’s unprecedented power and in the uncontrolled nature of his brand of journalism, and that the solution lies in bringing the press to heel with stricter regulations and greater constraints on what journalists are able to write about or to investigate. ‘It is vital that a free press can tell truth to power’, the Prime Minister David Cameron claimed. ‘It is equally important that those in power can tell truth to the press.’
It is true that Murdoch’s command over large swathes of the print and media industries have afforded him great influence. But we should not exaggerate his power. Murdoch’s primary asset was not the strength of his corporations, nor the unscrupulousness of his methods, but the cowardice of politicians and their isolation. Over past thirty years, as the public has become increasingly disengaged from politics, so politicians have become increasingly disengaged from their traditional constituencies. Desperate to be seen to be in touch with public feelings, they bought into the myth that tabloid newspapers had a special connection with the public, and that the public blindly followed where the tabloids led.
The result has been the creation of an incestuous relationship between the media, politicians and the police. Politicians and press barons have, of course, always sought each other’s company. But the terms of that relationship have changed. In the past, the political class spoke from a position of strength. Its social authority was unquestioned and it possessed immense self-confidence in its ability to rule. The press – and the police – did its bidding. Today, the political class is far weaker, its authority challenged, its self-confidence eroded, its ideas bankrupt. Hence the greater influence of a figure like Murdoch.
It was the incestuous relationship between politicians, the police and the press that allowed News of the World, and other Murdoch titles, to pursue their nefarious activities unhindered. It is this relationship, too, that should make us wary of the demand for greater regulation of the press. Such regulation would serve only to strengthen the political class and shield it from scrutiny.
Would greater regulation have helped prevent the scandalous behaviour of the News of the World? Unlikely. News International journalists and executives indulged in criminal behaviour that was ignored by the very people we are now supposed to trust to draw up new laws and tighter regulations and to enforce them. The scandal was exposed not by politicians or regulators or the police but despite them. It was good investigative journalism, especially from the Guardian’s Nick Davies that helped bring down Murdoch. And it is such journalism that is most at risk from the proposed solutions to the Murdoch scandal.
There is a real possibility of new privacy laws, the impact of which, as we can see in France, will be to neuter the ability of the media to hold powerful people to account. Paul Tweed, one of Britain’s leading media lawyers has used the scandal to argue on Twitter against the reform of Britain’s notorious libel laws, long exploited by the wealthy from across the world to prevent scrutiny of their affairs. He even suggested that there existed a 'strong argument' for the mandatory exposure of journalists' sources – a change that would effectively destroy any form of investigative journalism.
Perhaps most worrying is David Cameron’s claim that there is some kind of equivalence between 'a free press telling truth to power' and ‘those in power telling truth to the press’. 'Speaking truth to power' is a means of holding those in power to account. But when those in power start ‘telling truth to the press’, it can only mean the use of power to limit our access to truth. In cleaning out Rupert Murdoch’s stables we need to be careful that we don’t ourselves end up in the mire.