Wednesday, 13 July 2011
A comforting caricature.
The News of the World didn’t go far enough.
If the closure of the News of the World has confirmed one thing, if it needed confirming, it is that in society today the main momentum for censorship and curtailing press freedom is now ensconced comfortably at the left end of the political spectrum. Just as forty years ago the right had to resort to censorship because they didn’t have anything to say against the unravelling of social hypocrisies at the time, the left are now just as prone to censor because they don’t really have much to say about anything.
Whether it’s denying an audience to climate sceptic charlatans like Lord Monckton, or stopping the pernicious influence of right-wing tabloid rags, the motivation is the same, to prevent them from swaying the more susceptible minds of the masses – an influence from which they seem strangely immune, but we are never clear why (education? good breeding?).
That this has more to say about the bankruptcy of the left than the idea that the readership of the News of the World ever read it for much more than entertainment, is shown just as clearly on the occasions when the left do stand up for phone-tapping. Wikileaks, which rather embarrassingly has argued that NotW didn’t go far enough, can dump a whole truckload of sensitive documents without the left being able to make the slightest political use of it at all.
But as Wikileaks’ very inability to differentiate illustrates, it’s not that such press freedom really means that much these days anyway. As the hollow gushing over the Wikileaks revelations and now the Murdoch fiasco both show, the media and the political class are squabbling all the way down the same hole.
One of the most unedifying sights, in a week full of them, has been the spectacle of celebs and politicians crowding back into the nation’s television studios to use the understandable public outrage over the tapping of a dead girl’s mobile phone to get some more me-time and sympathy over their own phones being tapped, which no one gave a stuff about the first time round. One example was John Prescott, former Labour Deputy Prime Minister, who had made a political career out of being the token working class accent in Blair’s New Labour government, an act slightly spoiled when he accepted a Lordship at the end of it (his wife made him do it, apparently).
Prescott not only had been a victim of phone-tapping, which no one cared about, but also had some payback for the tabloids that had revealed an affair a few years ago (another paper). Unfortunately this time round, the BBC journalist interviewing wasn’t still much interested, but wanted to know what type of influence Murdoch had over the Labour government that was in power when all of these phone-tappings were going on.
In claiming that he argued that Murdoch’s power was exaggerated, however, Prescott made a salient point: Murdoch’s ability to move the public’s political opinion was never really tested, as he never backed a party at an election that wasn’t ahead in the opinion polls in the first place.
This goes to the heart of Murdoch’s business model. Not actually manipulating public opinion, but convincing an insecure political class that it could. This influence over the political class was not merely a delusion, but the result of the detachment of political parties from the electorate that meant that the media was the only real way they could relate to it. (This obsession with the media reached its height under Blair who made a virtue of his detachment from the old by sticking a ‘New’ in front of it, an act that continued until he was dumped and replaced by someone seen as closer to the party, but who shortly after flopped with the electorate. There are of course no parallels with Australian politics).
This was why Murdoch preferred paying sometimes high prices for high profile but loss-making newspapers, as a means of influencing the political class for favourable treatment for the real business, his television interests. This use of newspapers as mere pawns in the main game was why someone widely seen as an old fashioned newspaper man can just as easily shut down a 158 year-old paper, even if one of his most profitable.
That revelations about these squalid intrusions into the misery of others has come out now, years after they happened, but just at the time of what would be one of Murdoch’s most important deals, the take-over of BSkyB, might not be just a result of the noble search for truth and justice. The end consequences are highly unlikely to be. There are too many arses to be covered. It’s not just the political class, both the Tories in hiring NotW editor, Coulson, and Labour, who were in power when these wire-tappings happened and were known by the authorities at the time, but the authorities themselves, especially the police.
One wouldn’t know by the Murdoch-obsessed commentary, but we know there are at least two players in this – the tabloids that paid for personal information, and the police that sold it to them. Certainly some in the public seem to think so. The celebs and politicians on Question Time last week only wanted to talk about the News of the World, but as one of the audience noted they were skirting around the other issue, the role of the police in all of this.
Just what information about victims was sold by police to the journalists by those supposedly trusted to look after them has not been clarified, nor how it was that the NotW managed to get hold of a girl’s private mobile number while the police were still supposed to be looking for her killer, nor why when they knew the phone had been hacked they did not tell the parents who thought the deleted messages meant their daughter might still be alive. The BBC reported that one of those tapped by NotW was so distantly related to the 7/7 bombing victims that the number could only have been obtained from a police list. But it seems to be clear that even the police tasked to protect the Royal Family were selling telephone numbers to journalists – who else’s numbers did they sell?
We probably won’t know, but just as the Royals were the only one to get journalists arrested for phone-tapping the first time round, getting satisfaction on this will start from the top and work its way very slowly down, if at all. Given that the laws already exist to lock up those who tapped private phones, but were not applied except for the Royals, any new ones that will be introduced will only be pay-back for those that make them.
Certainly the public think this as well. The first poll since the NotW was closed found a staggering proportion of the public didn’t trust the media generally (80%) and were equally concerned about wider corruption of the police (77%). While more trusted Cameron to deal with the problem than Labour’s leader, half did not trust any party leader at all and over half did not believe they would root out corruption of the police. It would be convenient if it was all at the level of the Murdoch-hating caricature as some commentators would like to portray it, but the public know full well, even if the left don’t, that it’s not.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 13 July 2011.Filed under Media analysis