Monday, 11 July 2011

Paper, scissors, stone

Until last week, his ownership of Britain's two bestselling tabloids and (to a lesser extent) his large stake in BSkyB made Rupert Murdoch a power in the land, able to frighten politicians and, sometimes, get his own way. But he was never the dominant figure of myth. If you want to see what a media landscape looks like when it is dominated by one man, you have to go to Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi combines personal ownership of most commercial broadcasting with much greater power over the state broadcasting aparatus than any British politician would dare to dream of enjoying over the BBC. Britain is not Italy, thank goodness. Not even close.

Murdoch's power may have been great, but it was never absolute nor even in the majority, and total NewsCorp ownership of Sky would make little practical difference. That the bid -- almost certainly now defunct -- became a big issue at all is proof of the existence of a powerful, well-connected anti-Murdoch lobby in the UK. The coalition ranged against Murdoch includes not just the BBC and the Guardian and their union cheerleaders -- who have an ideological distaste for all his works that is at times only semi-rational -- but also (if intermittently) his commercial rivals at, for example, the Mail and the Telegraph.

The news market in this country has always been, and remains, incredibly tough and competitive. Politicians may have cosied up to Murdoch, but they haven't cosied up only to Murdoch; in recent years, both Labour and Conservative leaders have been every bit as solicitous of the Daily Mail. As Janet Daley pointed out yesterday, the real problem has been located elsewhere -- not in the power of one man but in a political culture in which journalists and politicians cultivate each other and share "the coded vocabulary, the discreet understandings, the accepted attitudes" of an extended club.

Taking down Murdoch won't stop this. It may even make things worse, by reinforcing a left-liberal mindset that does little for the "plurality" that the anti-Murdoch lobby so cherishes. But turning the phone-hacking scandal into a war against Murdoch also serves the interests of those whose involvement in phone-hacking and other questionable or illegal journalistic practice was at least as great. Because this is not, in truth, a story about Murdoch, or even about the tabloid press in general (whose sins were not confined to News International). It is a story about the dangerously entangled worlds of the press, the police and politics, a triad as inseparable and mutually menacing as scissors, paper and stone. They were all three in it together, all three playing the manipulation game, using influence, money and blackmail to increase their power and influence.

This is why Nick Clegg, himself part of the establishment (whether he likes it or not) was right to say that "the pillars of the establishment are tumbling". Or, rather, optimistic. They deserve to crumble, at least.

The most serious aspect of this whole saga may turn out to concern the behaviour of the police which, I suspect, goes much deeper than a few bent cops taking bribes from journalists in exchange for information. The Met in particular have used the press relentlessly and ruthlessly to get their message across, to campaign for more powers and greater curbs on civil liberty, to demand (and almost get) ID cards, to plant often misleading information about suspects in the public domain, and to increase their leverage with elected politicians. Who knows what inducements they have been able to offer, what quids pro quo, what threats they have whispered into the ears of politicians? No wonder they are worried.

George Michael has made some fascinating contributions via Twitter. I've turned his Tweets over the past few days into connected prose:


July 7th
Those of you that have wondered why I have had nothing to say this week about Rupert Murdoch, all I can say is that the time will come. But this much is worth saying now. Rebekah Brooks sat two feet from me in my own home and told me that it was never the public that came to them with information on celebrities, and that the Police always got there first. (Don't ask me how she got there. Believe me I didnt invite her.)

By the way, the things I have to say on the NOTW's corruption of the British justice system are by way of a public warning. These beliefs are in no way an excuse for any of my behavior in recent times. I was happy to do my time, because I was so ashamed. But I believe every individual, whether privileged or the average citizen, deserves the law. And many of us rich or poor have been denied it by News International. For many, many years. Like I said, today is a FANTASTIC day for Britain.

July 10th

One thing puzzles me, why is nobody talking to or about Sir Ian Blair? The man was obsessed with celebrity scandals.And he was in charge at the time that the so called 'list of victims' was discovered along with the names of the Royals hacked.Why has he disappeared into thin air? Isn't it possible that he had something to do with the decision NOT TO INFORM the hundreds (thousands?) of citizens of the danger? And we all remember his economy with the truth when it came to the poor Brazilian man who died on the tube post 9/11 [7/7 -ed].

Just a thought you understand. But the implausible becomes more plausible hour by hour as this all plays out. I just want to know, Why did the Metropolitan Police choose to hold on to the list for MORE THAN THREE YEARS?

July 11th

This thing is going to have legs, people. And not the pretty kind. Just spoke to my lawyer. Apparently they want to interview me about my comments on Rebekah Brooks here on Twitter. Like I said, glad to help. I have way more to tell the police than I can tweet to you here. Believe it or not, I've been careful so far!

From the very beginning of my self-made introduction to the police and the crown prosecution service, my main outrage was not for me. It was that I had been as naive as most of us who find ourselves dealing with the justice system for the first time. I really thought the Law was the Law.

Don't get me wrong, I met (a lot !) of perfectly decent policemen and women in my darkest, most shameful hours, but I knew that the press would get to my house before I did. On every occasion, some little creep in that police station would have called the press, cap in hand, and made a nice little wad of cash. I just became resigned to it. Perks of the job in the Met. But it was the first court trial that blew my mind.

Right now I am trying to get together transcripts and other information. Not because it will make any difference to me. It won't. In fact I can safely say that I am one of the few people amongst the thousands of News International's targets to have genuinely benefitted from Murdoch's attempts to destroy me. No, if I decide to say anything about how my first conviction came about, besides the fact that I was an idiot, it will be because I love my country, and I believe its judicial system MUST be trustworthy.

I am NOT trying to exonerate myself of anything, I did something bad and got my Karmuppance, as I like to think of it. Its just that the sequence of events between my being arrested and finally convicted for sleeping pills and exhaustion seemed extremely -- well, let's just call it ...illegal. I was going to say odd, but sod it, they seemed at the very least, outside of normal legal procedure. These are only my suspicions, but I think that if they hold water, then it's very important that they come to light for everyone's sake.

Here's the problem, though. The police, the press and the leading politicians have each other in a death-grip. Or, to switch metaphors, they each have a loaded revolver pointed at one or both the others. Politicians threaten the press with regulation, but are threatened in their turn by the possibility of embarrassing revelations (some, no doubt, courtesy of the police). The police cannot investigate the press too closely without pulling their own house down; and they continue to rely on the political class for new powers and kit. And the press, however vulnerable they now seem, know where the bodies are buried.

It is in no-one's interests to clear up the mess. Rupert Murdoch, though, in his present weakened condition, will make a most useful fall-guy. Some will call it just deserts; and perhaps it is. But it will really be a case of the media-political complex doing to News International what Murdoch tried to do to by killing off the News of the World.