Thursday, July 07, 2011

A Tale of Our Times

Hubris, it seems, comes to everyone in time, even apparently invulnerable and all conquering media magnates. Or so it must seem to anyone observing the News International saga at the moment. For years Rupert Murdoch has bestrode the British political scene. Unencumbered by the menial requirements of mere voters such as British citizenship or the need to pay taxes he has wielded more power and influence over prime ministers and putative prime ministers than any British citizen. His editors have been the satraps of his power, the unelected viziers demanding their preferred politics from timid, beleaguered politicians.

How things have changed. Like many revolutions, this one has been boiling under the surface for years but has suddenly, and largely without warning, burst onto the scene. In so doing, it is not only changing the way in which things are being done, but shedding an illuminating light on the darker corners of the British polity.

On changes, Steve Richards in a trenchant piece for the Independent today, remarks upon the extraordinary scenes of once fearful MPs lining up to attack the Murdoch empire, and his key henchmen and women, in the Commons. Richards' piece is a fine and glorious read, suitably over the top and biting towards the malign influence of News International over the years. And, of course, not one that would have been written any time before, say, the day before yesterday!

Few institutions emerge with much credit from this sorry affair. The bulk of the newspaper establishment failed to produce any sort of investigation of its own - only the Guardian stands as a beacon of virtue in this regard, and we can only guess at the pressure it had to withstand both within and without the incestuous media establishment. The Press Complaints Commission remains a vapid eunuch incapable of action against its own. The political classes, repeatedly confronted with the excesses of tabloid reporting, cravenly failed to take any stand against them. Only now, as the giant falls, are they starting to run towards it kicking and punching. The role of the Metropolitan Police is particularly murky, itself the subject of a potential investigation. Quick to leap into action against politicians, they have proved remarkably more sluggish in pursuing News International. And our leading politicians, the men who would be premier, have been most shabby of all. From Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, the pursuit of the Australian magnate's favour has been a ludicrous sideshow of lilliputian proportions. Richards describes Blair's flight to join Murdoch's executives at short notice; Cameron employed Andy Coulson and wines and dines Rebekah Brooks; even Ed Miliband saw fit to attend Murdoch's summer bash this year, and employs former Murdoch man Tom Baldwin as his press secretary.

The press wields huge power even now on the political discourse of this nation, and consequently on the decisions taken by our political leaders. It also, more nefariously, has the ability - which it exercises - to destroy the reputations of individuals big and small. Such are the libel laws of the land that it rarely needs to apologise for its often grievous errors. It can ruin people at the stroke of a pen and never need to pick it up again for a further apologetic motion. And apparently, up to now, it has employed illegal means to intrude on private individuals' space and emotions with impunity. It has demanded the hide of erring politicians, but the erring leaders of News International now simply slink into the dark corners of their unfathomable citadels.

Will there actually be justice? Will Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson and the rest of the merry band finally face the come-uppance they so readily demand of others? The limp and belated response of David Cameron and others hardly suggests so, although the sound and fury of other MPs in the Commons yesterday may indicate the backlash to come. But justice, in this instance, will be more than an inquiry or two into News International. It demands a wholesale review of the way in which our press conducts itself, and no more tip-toeing around the need for proper oversight here as elsewhere.

One of David Cameron's predecessors, Stanley Baldwin, under pressure from Lord Beaverbrook - the Murdoch of his day - commented that the press "had power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages". He highlighted journalism at its lowest point. What it could, and should be, is summed up in a fine sentiment by Peter Oborne in today's "Spectator":

Unfortunately, we in Fleet Street have forgotten that the ultimate vindication of journalism is not to intrude into, and destroy, private lives. Nor is it the dance around power, money and social status. It is the fight for truth and decency.

If this spat means journalism returns to fighting for truth and decency, rather than the tawdry intrusion into private lives, then we may have recovered something good from this after all.

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