A lot of powerful people in the UK have suddenly found their spines in the last few days.
That’s perhaps the most remarkable impact The Guardian’s Milly Dowler scoop has had. As Editor Alan Rusbridger put it, “The palpably intimidating spectre of an apparently untouchable media player has been burst.”
And he would know.
This scandal has a larger meaning even beyond the rampant illegality at News of the World, the violations of murder victims and the families of dead soldiers, and the coverups of all this within News Corporation. It has shown more clearly than anything before it just how much power Rupert Murdoch, who, forgive me for repeating myself over and over, is not a Briton, has accumulated over British government and society. This scandal has laid bare, where it was previously just suspected, exactly how corrupting that power really is.
Rusbridger’s succinct account of his paper’s lonely years uncovering this story is as good a place as any to start to see the craven behavior of British institutions, including the press, have been when it comes to all things Murdoch. You should read the whole column—it’s a profile in journalistic courage—but here he is on Nick Davies, his reporter who has dominated the story:
Nick’s first story on the full extent of the phone-hacking scandal was published almost exactly two years ago - on 8 July 2009. It was - or should have been - explosive. It reported that a major global media company - News International - had paid out £1m secretly to settle legal cases which revealed criminality within their business.
Instead of going back to parliament or the regulator to admit that they had been misled, the company’s chairman, James Murdoch, signed a large cheque to stop the truth coming out.
With any non-media company this revelation would have led to blanket coverage, calls for resignations, immediate action by the regulator etc. Instead there was a kind of ghostly silence.
The Metropolitan police - led by Assistant Commissioner John Yates - announced an inquiry. And then, within the space of a few hours, he announced the inquiry was over and there was nothing to inquire into.
News International, doubtless pleased by this clean bill of health, came out all guns blazing, denouncing the Guardian’s deliberate attempts to mislead the public. Most of the press decided it wasn’t much of a story. The regulator decided there was nothing wrong. And many MPs were sympathetic in private, but indicated there was little in it for them in sticking their heads above any public parapet.
Along the same lines, the prominent British journalist and critic Peter Oborne has a searing commentary on what the hacking scandal means about the society. I’ll quote liberally from his lede, which is fantastic:
Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that BP threw an extravagant party, with oysters and expensive champagne. Let’s imagine that Britain’s most senior politicians were there — including the Prime Minister and his chief spin doctor. And now let’s imagine that BP was the subject of two separate police investigations, that key BP executives had already been arrested, that further such arrests were likely, and that the chief executive was heavily implicated.
Let’s take this mental experiment a stage further: BP’s chief executive had refused to appear before a Commons enquiry, while MPs who sought to call the company to account were claiming to have been threatened. Meanwhile, BP was paying what looked like hush money to silence people it had wronged, thereby preventing embarrassing information entering the public domain.
And now let’s stretch probability way beyond breaking point. Imagine that the government was about to make a hugely controversial ruling on BP’s control over the domestic petroleum market. And that BP had a record of non-payment of British tax. The stench would be overwhelming. There would be outrage in the Sun and the Daily Mail — and rightly so — about Downing Street collusion with criminality. The Sunday Times would have conducted a fearless investigation, and the Times penned a pained leader. In parliament David Cameron would have been torn to shreds.
Instead, until this week there has been almost nothing, save for a lonely campaign by the Guardian. Because the company portrayed above is not BP, but News International, owner of the Times, the Sunday Times, the News of the World and the Sun, approximately one third of the domestic newspaper market. And last week, Jeremy Hunt ruled that Murdoch, who owns a 39 per cent stake in BSkyB, can now buy it outright (save for Sky’s news channel). This consolidates the Australian-born mogul as by far the most significant media magnate in this country, wielding vast political and commercial power.