Power corrupted the Murdoch empire’s journalism
By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.
There’s an old saying, which Scots still exchange with each other, usually humorously: “Aweel, ye ken noo” – well, you know now. It harks back to when Scots life was dominated by the stern Presbyterianism engrained into it by Calvin’s disciple, John Knox: when direct, personal accountability to God was at the center of the faith, and the Church of Scotland, the “Kirk,” policed the morals of society with enthusiastic rigor. “Well ye ken noo” was the generic cry of the godly to the un-godly, faced with the prospect of the fires of hell, having ignored the warnings of the faithful in a life of dissipation.
Well, we ken noo.
We are everyone, but above all we of the British journalistic persuasion. We learn every day a little more about the practices carried on in the name of journalism by some of our colleagues in News International — a trail of abuse that started with hacking the mobile phones of the royal princes, spread to celebrities, to politicians and their aides — and in the last two weeks to murder and terrorist victims and their families and to the sick child of a former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown — whose bank and tax records were, also invaded (News International has disputed Brown’s charges). We learn all this — and today will bring more — but we learn a large lesson as we do.
We learn that there is a difference between knowing, and “knowing.”
For example, we “knew” — or those of us interested in these things “knew” — that Saudi Arabia hated and feared Iran. We knew they did when a Wikileaks-leaked cable of April 2008 described a meeting between General David Petraeus, then the senior military commander in the Middle East, with King Abdullah — at which the King urged U.S. military action against Iran, while the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, spelled it out – “he told you to cut off the head of the snake.”
A friend told me recently that, as a young woman in the seventies, she “knew” she faced some hidden, some overt and even some illegal discrimination against her because of her sex. But the full extent of the sexism only became clear to her when radicals in the feminist movement and the trade unions, made an account of these discriminations and began to campaign against them — and in doing so, changed much of the world for her and later generations of women (and men: we had to get it, too).
Similarly, we in journalism here “knew” that policemen were bribed — I saw it happen in a minor way, once, and though shocked, I said nothing, did nothing — and we “knew” that the tabloids played it rough and got information in devious ways and had few if any inhibitions about invasions of private life. But now we know — we see the full extent. Some — the Guardian carries much of the credit — made a full account. We’ve been forced to really know and contend with what thought we already “knew” about the nature of tabloid journalism.
Knowing in the full, conscious sense of the world isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It’s also a call to action. When feminists and trade unionists made their account of women’s unequal place, they combined facts, indignation and publicity, and worked to have it changed. So, as an account has been made by a few journalists and a few members of parliament of the scale of the corruption, the rest of the journalism profession has to make an examination of ourselves and our practices, and revisit the purpose of our trade.
Politicians who had wooed and flattered Rupert Murdoch now feel some shame, too. “I accept,” wrote Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s powerful director of communications (not a man given to apology) in Monday’s FT, “that for all of us, at times, media support was something we courted at the expense of positions of principle on media issues.” But with that retrospective shame there is also present release — release from the bonds of subservience to a ruthless popular press, and to its capo, Rupert Murdoch. Labour’s Tom Watson, the bravest of the MPs, an outspoken foe of News International, said on Monday night that the relationship between the political class and journalists had changed forever: it would now be distant, correct, careful. Rupert Murdoch bowed to this new mood on Wednesday, when he withdrew his bid for the whole of BSkyB. Politicians had him underfoot: he was accustomed to the reverse.
Politics is where this new knowledge — the inescapable facts, pouring into the public arena — becomes action and purpose, where Watson’s optimistic forecast will be tested. There is a cynical version, which is that the new knowledge (as against the old “knowledge”) is a fleeting thing, a storm in a beer glass, and that in a year, people will say “that fuss in the newspapers . . . what was it about?” — as we do about so much. Just as politics is power, so is journalism: indeed, to be a journalism worth its name, it must be powerful, and must instill some fear of exposure in the governing classes. So as long as it retains an audience, it will retain power. And power — we certainly know this — corrupts.
But News International’s power was significantly based on arrogance as well as corruption: the arrogance which assumed that law breaking, and a casual flouting of every ethical code journalism has tried to erect, would never be checked by the authorities because the fear their newspapers could inspire was too great. The power journalism should — must — have, in any state in which a balance of powers is part of the democratic settlement, is actually much greater. It is the power of an effort to seek the truth, the facts, in a way which respects both them and the people from which they come — in the belief that doing so makes for a better society. If, today, that statement would raise a horse laugh among many British citizens, that is in part because we journalists did not know (and act on) what we “knew.”
But we ken noo.