The hacking scandal was about many things but the way in which it has played-out and, crucially, been reported reminds us that it has chiefly been about power. Not just the power of the press when weighed against the power of parliament but the relative positions of power and authority within the press.
In that respect it has been a confusing, complex kind of conflict. You might view the newspapers as over-mighty magnates whose powers should have been curbed long ago. In this picture, the press barons have been so revolting – in every sense – that their activities began to threaten the security – and decency – of the state itself.
But there has been another war too. A media civil war within the larger parallel conflicts between press, parliament and public. And that war has had a simple purpose: destroying Rupert Murdoch. It will make a great film: The Sweet Smell of Success meets Game of Thrones.
I should declare an interest. I write for The Times and I have plenty of friends who are, or at some point have been, on the Murdoch payroll. I also happen to think that Murdoch is a great proprietor. Not everyone who owns a newspaper loves newspapers. Murdoch does. Not many people who owned The Times would have kept it open these past thirty years. Murdoch has. I wouldn’t expect that to persuade those who hate him but I don’t think it’s trivial either.
I also don’t think it is wrong or disgraceful for The Guardian (with some assistance from the BBC) to try to destroy Murdoch. That’s their prerogative. But let’s at least be honest and acknowledge that’s the aim.
And, to be fair, Nick Davies makes little if any attempt to hide that in his latest account of the hacking drama. It is a curious article, however, not least in its determined attempt to paint the Crown as David against Murdoch’s Goliath. Perhaps the press has over-reached itself but the state is hardly powerless. For Davies, however, the hacking trial was also a story of ‘the peculiar values of this particular century – its materialism and the inequality which goes with it, the dominance of corporation over state.‘
According to Davies ‘Rupert Murdoch’s money flooded that courtroom’ and I think an ordinary reader sitting on his ordinary omnibus is entitled to infer something from that. There is an insinuation that this was not fair. The jury were not nobbled – perish the thought! – but they may have been bamboozled by the lawyers hired to defend the accused. The verdicts are unimpeachable – of course! – but there’s still, reading between the lines, a whiff of something rotten here.
And if you read Davies’ piece you are left with the impression that he – and perhaps his paper – hate two things above all: tabloid journalism and the influence wielded by Murdoch’s newspapers. Davies concludes his piece thus: ‘The jury at the Old Bailey returned true verdicts according to the evidence. They were not asked to do more.’
Again, we are I think meant to understand that this is a bloody shame. Meant to realise that hacking – which went on, to one degree or another, at many newspapers that were not owned by Rupert Murdoch – is almost a side-issue. It is a convenient cause but the real scandal, at least according to The Guardian, is that Murdoch’s papers still exist and that, generally speaking and most of the time, they promulgate a right-of-centre view of the world and support the Conservative party.
Even if we agree that the News of the World was the paper most prominently enthusiastic about hacking phones we know that it was not the only paper to endorse such, er, story-getting techniques. I am sure The Guardian deplores allegations of dreadful behaviour at the Mirror papers too. It’s just that you would hardly think so from reading The Guardian. I don’t suppose the Mirror’s status as a left-wing paper has anything to do with that. At any rate, you’d be encouraged to think this was just a Murdoch story.
I don’t mean to suggest that because everyone was guilty no-one is really all that guilty. It is clear that some papers behaved worse than others and it is reasonable to construct a hierarchy of culpability. Nevertheless it is less than honest to foster the impression only papers owned by one proprietor were guilty of this behaviour even if they were, most likely, more frequently guilty of it than others. Equally, that no-one has hacked a phone in years now is something people might remember more often than is the case even as it does not justify past criminal activity.
I agree with everything in this paper’s editorial this week. Far from justifying – as Nick Davies seems to think – the Leveson enquiry, this trial shows how Leveson was hardly necessary in the first place. The rule of law may work slowly but it does, usually and in the end, work. So does journalism: this episode owes a lot to Nick Davies’ reporting. The question of quis custodiet ipsos custodes is answered easily: by the guardians themselves (especially Private Eye). That’s the great thing about the diversity of the British press, a diversity – in every respect – greater than that which exists in most other countries.
Speaking of which, we might, when considering over-mighty media moguls remember that Murdoch is not the main player in the British media landscape. That honour belongs to the BBC. Nearly six times as many Britons watch BBC1 than read The Sun. The BBC’s website has more readers than any Murdoch title. And across all platforms, online, on television and on radio, the BBC does more to shape and mould public attitudes than any other media enterprise. This is so even if it also often takes its lead from the newspapers.
Now I cheerfully concede that Britain’s newspapers can be appalling creatures. Vain, hypocritical, sanctimonious, bullying, vicious, corrupt and criminal. And thank heavens for that. In general, that is. I actually think it is fine to break the law in pursuit of a story provided you are prepared to face the consequences and pay the price of doing so.
It may not be entirely true that the bestial nature of the British press is one reason why British politics is, despite everything, relatively clean and lacking in corruption (other countries with less invasive newspapers are also non-corrupt) but I can’t help but think it might be part of the reason for the relative cleanliness of British public life.
If I compare British politics with public life in the other two countries I know best – the United States of America and the Republic of Ireland – I’m pretty confident in saying that British politics is cleaner than politics in either of those splendid places. And British newspapers are better – if also more vicious – than newspapers in those countries too. I can’t say there is a link but nor can I dismiss the thought there might be.
That viciousness, remember, can be a very good thing. Ask FIFA. Everyone all over the world has known about FIFA for years but it was the British press – specifically the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times – that has proved it.
Nick Davies and The Guardian seem to think the Murdoch press makes people in this country stupider than they might be. Soften ’em up with salacious celebrity tittle-tattle and then they’ll drink the right-wing populism like its the grooviest kind of kool-aid. If only we got rid of Murdoch the public would be better! But this is unlikely and we know this because the public in countries in which Murdoch has no press interest are just as likely to hold many mistaken beliefs.
So, yes, it’s about power but it’s really also about politics. The left fears Murdoch and hates him because they fear him. He’s like a baron with his own private army and it’s beyond time the state brought him to heel. Those who support Leveson would support a more powerful state. I’m not sure I think that’s such a great thing.
That’s not the story of Andy Coulson and others but it is the wider war in which their behaviour and fate is but a single front. Like I say, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily reprehensible about that (it will make a great movie) but let’s at least acknowledge this is what it’s really about. Power. It’s always about power.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.