‘The world is changing’, declared the Guardian in a ‘revolutionary week’. ‘This is our Berlin Wall moment’, tweeted Guardian columnist George Monbiot. ‘Our democracy is stronger’, proclaimed the Independent. For BBC political editor Nick Robinson, it was an ‘avalanche’ that was ‘still moving’. ‘Gravity’, he intoned, ‘cannot be defied for ever.’ Someone at this very moment may well be writing the script for Avalanche!, the next blockbuster movie from a major Hollywood studio (but probably not 20th Century Fox.)
There’s no doubt that a body blow has been delivered to Rupert Murdoch’s mighty News Corporation empire. Leading politicians, who until very recently had been both obsequious and fearful, now want to put themselves at least a bargepole’s length away from the media mogul. As Media Lens reader ‘Keith-264’ noted on our message board:‘Rupert’s down and is getting a tabloid handbagging from lots of people who hitherto hid under a stone at the mere sound of his name.’ (July 14, 2011)
The power of the public is the prime reason for the shift. There had been near-universal revulsion at the phone hacking involving murdered children, victims of the 7 July 2005 bombing in London, and the families of servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. News International payments to police officers and pay-offs to phone-hacking victims, together with feeble and curtailed police investigations, make up a toxic mix with rumours of even worse to be exposed in the near future. In this atmosphere of public disgust, the main political parties had finally shown some mettle and stood up to Murdoch’s long-time bullying.
Tory leader David Cameron desperately tried to keep his head above water, seemingly unable to comprehend the extent of a rapidly escalating anger throughout an appalled country. He was engulfed by fallout from his shoddy judgement in employing Andy Coulson, a former editor of News of the World, as his director of communications.
Spreading around the blame in an attempt to dilute his own culpability, Cameron stated: ‘The truth is, we have all been in this together—the press, politicians and leaders of all parties—and yes, that includes me.’
There was no sign that he, far less the government, would resign over the matter.
A Guardian team lead by investigative journalist Nick Davies did much to stoke up the heat on Rupert Murdoch, his son James and Rebekah Brooks, as well as the Metropolitan Police in London. While recognising the good journalism undertaken here, the Guardian has not been entirely convincing about its role in ‘warning’ Cameron about Coulson’s connections to a private investigator with a criminal record. As John Hilley asks:
Is it the role of this country’s ‘leading liberal’ newspaper to act as a ‘vetting agent’ for top politicians?
We asked Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, deputy editor Ian Katz (who actually placed the phone call to the Tory inner circle) and the ‘unreconstructed idealist’ George Monbiot. Not one of them responded. It appears that Monbiot is a ‘professional troublemaker’ so long as it does not entail asking questions of his own corporate employer.
We must also bear in mind that it makes good business sense to put media competitors under the spotlight; The Times and Sunday Times are, after all, in the same ‘quality press’ market as the Guardian and the Observer. Weakening the grip of News International on the UK media would have many benefits for the other corporate media players. But the notion that a more honest media would thus emerge, one capable of systematically challenging official propaganda that facilitates military ‘interventions’ and abuses of planet and people, is highly suspect. The same structural constraints ensuring propaganda services on behalf of elite state-corporate interests remain in place.
Downplaying or overlooking these constraints, with talk of a Hippocratic Oath for journalists and a new manifesto for media ethics, is little more than a fresh lick of paint to a towering press edifice.
Freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke says the ‘root cause’ of ‘the corrupt relationship between the power elites’ is ‘the secretive system of information patronage.’ Access to public records in the US is far better protected than here in the UK which still veers towards secrecy. One might ask then: why is it that journalism in the US is arguably even more supine to power than it is here in the UK? In fact, the barriers to genuine fourth-estate journalism are much more systemic than Brooke recognises, in common with other commentators now blathering away in the corporate media.
Equally oblivious to the structural realities that crush any real prospects of journalism holding power to account, the Independent asserted: ‘Britain still has a free, independent and ethical press, and it remains as essential to the nation’s wellbeing as ever.’
In his book, Flat Earth News, the Guardian’s Nick Davies had written:
Owners and advertisers are only part of the reason for the ideological problems in the mass media; and ideology is only part of the total problem of the retreat from truth-telling journalism. Journalists with whom I have discussed this agree that if you could quantify it, you could attribute only 5% or 10% of the problem to the total impact of these two forms of interference. (p. 22)
The inference was that even Murdoch at most constitutes a 5 to 10% hindrance in honest journalism: a very modest ‘statistic’ – in fact, more of a thumb-sucking number – at odds with the hyperbolic wave of rhetoric and self-congratulation sweeping over the Guardian and the rest of the liberal media at the sight of Rupert Murdoch apparently stopped in his tracks. Could this really be the dawn of a new ‘changed’ world of ‘media plurality’, ‘stronger democracy’ and dismantled Berlin Walls?
The ‘Wake-up Call’ That Rang for Thirty Years and More
We are to believe that our leaders have suddenly come to their senses about the collusion between powerful media, corrupt police and the political establishment. David Cameron declared the current scandal was a ‘wake-up call’. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said:
I think what we’ve seen, what’s come to light over the last week or two is a symptom if you like of a much wider problem. And that problem is that different bits of the British system; the press, the police, the politicians just became too close to one another, became too cosy, became too tied up with each other.
Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow mewled plaintively into the Twitter sphere: ‘We knew it was happening … all of it in a sense, why didn’t we do more about it?’
Indeed, why didn’t you? You and your media colleagues had the resources to uncover it all. You just didn’t have the cojones. Instead, you shamefully let down the public that pays your salary.
Somehow this all ‘just’ happened and only hit senior politicians over the head in ‘the last week or two’. Journalists bemoan the fact they couldn’t speak out about it before. All of this is deceptive, self-serving nonsense. The public has seen the reality for years, if not decades. Why else the widespread scepticism and even deep cynicism towards politicians and the corporate media?
Many people know all too well that we are kept away from meaningful input to major government policies. Excluded from the ship’s bridge, we are largely captive passengers on a supertanker that is sailing on a destructive course set by the convergence of state and corporate power.
Julie Hyland injected some much-needed perspective:
What is being exposed is not simply the moral and political depravity of one man or one corporation, but the putrefaction of an entire social and political system. Nothing the Labourites or Tories say can conceal the fact that for more than 30 years Murdoch has been the power behind the throne of British politics—and indeed, the politics of countries all over the world. This includes the US, where Murdoch’s Fox network, New York Post and Wall Street Journal largely set the reactionary agenda for the two big business parties [i.e. both the Republicans and the Democrats].
Turning back to Britain, Hyland provided further context so glaringly absent from ‘mainstream’ media coverage:
The relationship between the two main parties and Murdoch is based on a common economic and political agenda—one forged in the early 1980s, as the ruling class set out to destroy the social rights won by working people in order to give free rein to the corporations and the City of London.
Murdoch backed Thatcher to launch the anti-working class offensive, then switched to Tony Blair and Labour to deepen it, and switched back to the Tories and Cameron to finish the job of destroying the social gains of a century of working class struggle.
Or if you prefer Clegg’s propaganda version of the truth, uncritically relayed by the Guardian:
This whole episode has cast a spotlight on that sort of murky world of the British establishment, the police, the press and politicians and we must now take this opportunity to clean things up and make sure that the public once again trust those institutions.
Just as when Tony Blair’s New Labour swept into Downing Street in 1997, and when the sainted Barack ‘Yes we can!’ Obama ascended to the US presidency in 2009, it is crucial that the slate is once again wiped clean, and public confidence in power restored, so that the establishment can get on with doing pretty much whatever it likes. Or if we decide that this is unacceptable, as we should, then we can rip up the endlessly repeating script and rewrite it in our favour.