What Rupert did

By John Lloyd
September 20, 2011

By John Lloyd
The views expressed are his own.

The crisis at the News of the World broke in July 2011. It had been gathering for five years, since the first public intimations surfaced in 2006 of a culture of using private investigators to hack into the mobile phones of those the newspaper wished to investigate. Two ‘rotten apples’ were thrown out by News International, the parent company: these were Glen Mulcaire, the private investigator employed by a number of papers to find out secrets of the objects of their investigations; and Clive Goodman, the News of the World (NotW ) reporter who covered the royal family and whose stories had used material gleaned by Mulcaire from interceptions of the royal princes’ phones. The rest of the barrel, the paper and the company said, was unblemished: as evidence of purity of soul, the then editor, Andy Coulson, resigned, disavowing all knowledge of the hacking but shouldering responsibility as the one on whose watch this had happened. A few months later, he was employed as director of communications by David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party and of the opposition; when Cameron moved, in May 2010, into Number 10 as prime minister, Coulson retained his post and moved with him. It was reported that several of those who met Cameron at this time warned him against employing Coulson. The latter’s claim, that he had not asked a senior reporter about the source of stories which would be among the most important published in any given week, astonished those who had any acquaintance with journalism. However, Cameron said he accepted his word, that Coulson deserved a ‘second chance’ and that he had skills which the leader of the opposition needed.

From these quite modest beginnings grew a scandal whose revelations have laid bare journalistic practices which were not confined to phone hacking, nor to the NotW, and involved issues even more serious: the assumption by leading journalists working for the most widely read section of the British press that the private lives of anyone in whom they wished to take an interest should be open to their gaze and use; increasing subordination of the political class to tabloid pressure; and the possible (as yet unproven) corruption of officers of the Metropolitan Police.

This is written as the News International scandal, and others associated with it, roll on. The issue is sufficiently mature, however, for there to have appeared a substantial minority of voices which dissent from the chorus of condemnation which has attended these revelations, and assert that, even if the scandal is shocking, it has been grossly overblown – as a Wall Street Journal editorial had it, overblown because of left-wing hostility to right-wing newspapers. These voices point out that more important matters face the world; and that, even if Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation (whose UK subsidiary News International is, and which also owns Dow Jones, parent company of the Wall Street Journal) presided over an organization in which such things were winked at, he has also been a force for good in the newspaper trade. He smashed the anarchic Fleet Street print unions which were a barrier to development and growth, invested mightily in an industry from which others were and still are exiting, kept alive (among other titles) The Times at a large loss, provided millions of readers in three Anglophone countries – Australia, the UK and to a lesser extent the USA – with newspapers which they freely and often chose to buy, and ran an efficient and entrepreneurial company. More, as Ros Wynne-Jones argued in the Independent, at times his tabloids did revelatory and campaigning journalism on issues that mattered to a working-class readership: ‘holiday rip-offs, the loan shark thugs, the tawdry parasitical underclass that preys on the poor and elderly’. One could add to her list an appetite for exposing racial extremists: the Sun vividly reported on leading members of the British National Party, which had sought to give a more moderate image of itself, giving Nazi salutes and glorying in racial hatred.

Be careful what you wish for, is the collective message. And given the record, these arguments have force. So we should assert here the importance of what happened, which must be set against these assertions.

First, the News of the World (NotW), for many years the highest circulation newspaper in Britain, systemically hacked into the phones of politicians, celebrities, and people in the news – including murder victims and their relatives – in order to produce exclusives. Their journalists also bribed policemen, both with petty cash and – allegedly – with large payments: an early estimate was that News International (NI) had spent £100,000 on such bribes, though as this is written there is no definite evidence. They found out about the private sins of people in public life – and where they did not print details, they held the results of the investigations over their heads. The Liberal Democrats, the junior party since May 2010 in Britain’s governing coalition, alleged that senior officials had been told that News International papers would ‘do them in’ if they did not press for the government to allow Murdoch to take full control of the highly profitable UK satellite broadcaster BSkyB; he already owns 39 per cent, and his son James was and remains chairman. This was threatened, it is alleged, at the time when Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, had the responsibility of deciding on the bid. He was relieved of that when, in a sting organized by the Daily Telegraph in December 2010, he told two journalists who were posing as his constituents, that he was ‘at war’ with Murdoch. The responsibility passed from his department to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary – who was on course to approve it until the revelations came, and the deal was lost. In late July, several journalists who had worked for other tabloids – such as the Daily and Sunday Mirror – alleged that phone hacking was common in these newsrooms, under the editorship of Piers Morgan (1995–2004) and perhaps before and after. It rapidly appeared likely that the NotW was not alone in accessing messages to obtain salacious gossip. In September last year, the New York Times Magazine, in a major exposé of the News International affair, quoted a former NotW reporter, Sharon Marshall, as saying that ‘It was an industry wide thing. Talk to any tabloid journalist in the United Kingdom, and they can tell you each phone company’s four-digit codes. Every hack on every newspaper knew this was done.’

The News International tabloids were the market leaders in a casual cruelty to their victims in which their most active spirits reveled. ‘That is what we do: we go out and destroy people’s lives’, Greg Miskiw, the former news editor of the News of the World, is reported to have said to one of his reporters. British tabloids live(d) by the disclosure of private details, however obtained, and may die for the lack of it (if matters really do change). Scandal, mainly sexual scandal, became their business model and their journalistic mission, one which drew assent even from those journalists who did not share their methods. Paul Dacre, editor in chief of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, told a committee of Lords and MPs examining the draft Defamation Bill that ‘I personally wouldn’t have it (the NotW) in the house but I would die in a ditch to defend its right to publish.’ Publishing meant to continue what was, at its root, a theater of cruelty.

Second, many political figures have felt bound to confess they had sought to placate and woo Rupert Murdoch. In one of the debates on the issue in the House of Commons, David Cameron made the humiliating comment that ‘your bins are gone through by some media organization, but you hold back from dealing with it because you want good relations with the media’. Peter (Lord) Mandelson, in an interview in mid-July, said that all politicians avoided confrontation with the press ‘because we were too fearful’. In a reflection on the affair in the New Yorker, the journalist and dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Nicholas Lemann, wrote  of the mafia-like ecosystem supporting News of the World-style journalism, in which even the highest politicians feel that they will suffer grave personal consequences if they fail to feed the hungry monster.

The honest among them, having expressed dismay at the scale of the criminality, turned the question back: What would you have us do? Politics requires power; to keep it requires some measure of public support; the only large-scale vehicle for communication and the attraction of public attention, given the decay of political parties and their capacity to enthuse and attract large-scale movements of the left or the right, are the news media. Here was a news media company with vast power over public opinion, with a proven record of diminishing politicians. To scorn it and its owner was to invite the treatment meted out to Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party (1983–92), who did scorn it and never won an election; or John Major, Conservative prime minister (1992–97), who had NI’s (and most other newspapers’) support when he won, and had their contempt when he lost. Wooing, as dignified as possible, seemed the best tactic. But it meant that an Australian with American citizenship exercised huge influence over the style and content of British politics, and that British prime ministers, party leaders, and the ambitious of all parties quickly learned the wisdom of attracting his journalists’ favorable attention.

Third, now that this bubble has burst, it seems we ‘knew’ that these things happened. We – really, the political and media people – ‘knew’ that phones were hacked, policemen were paid off, and politicians were exposed, or threatened with exposure if they felt like attacking News International. We ‘knew’ all this – and yet the revelations, generally prompted by the Guardian’s dogged digging in the story over years, burst like a bomb – as if on a wholly unaware society. Disclosure of what we ‘know’ changes the way in which we know: it supplies details rather than rumors, and replaces the pseudo-sophisticated cynicism with which most insiders dealt with what they ‘knew’ with a context in which outrage could – indeed must – be expressed, a reaction which only a few, such as the Labour MPs Tom Watson and Chris Bryant, had dared to show before. As with the Wikileaks’ revelations, ‘knowing’ becomes knowing only when detail, context, and impact are combined. We ‘knew’, for example, that Saudi Arabia feared Iran (or, again, the political/policy/media circle ‘knew’). But we knew the scale of it and depth of it only when a diplomatic cable exposed by Wikileaks quoted members of the Saudi ruling house asking the USA to ‘cut off the head of the snake’.

Disclosure, when it is well founded, is knowledge without quotation marks. The News International revelations meant that, after them, we knew that the tactics of the tabloidswhich could have been seen as either comic (of the Front Page sort), or in the public interest, or, since it affects only those who live by publicity and thus must occasionally be wounded or die by it, harmless – were in fact harmful, threatening intrusions into what were the most intimate, even tragic, moments of private life. With that knowledge has come resistance, not just to the methods of tabloid journalism but to the combination of threats and arrogance which the News International papers and their executives displayed. The future of newspapers, the news business, British (and other) journalism, and also a significant part of the quality of civic life depends substantially on how far this resistance will remain, and how far a new spirit can effect a deep change.

Fourth, the News International titles, in common with all newspapers and especially tabloid newspapers, had huge reservoirs of indignation ready to be poured over governments (especially), corporations, and other institutions which lie, cover up, disguise, obfuscate, and spin. Yet here is another thing we ‘knew’: that, though the news media relentlessly promoted transparency and accountability, they are of all institutions the least likely to live by their rules – indeed, they reject these rules in the name of freedom. The now-classic critique is that of Onora O’Neill, who argued that

the media, in particular the print media – while deeply preoccupied with others’ untrustworthiness – have escaped demands for accountability  … outstanding reporting and accurate writing mingle with editing and reporting that smears, sneers and jeers, names, shames and blames. Some reporting ‘covers’ (or should I say ‘uncovers’?) dementing amounts of trivia, some misrepresents, some denigrates, some teeters on the brink of defamation… Above all there is no requirement to make evidence accessible to readers.

O’Neill ‘knew’ that by observation; but she, and we, did not know how right she was – or rather, how only partially right she was, since to the smears, sneers and jeers, the names, shames, and blames have to be added the driven, ruthless hacking into the private lives of the powerful and the powerless; the contempt the senior levels of News International expressed for those politicians who sought to call them to account (and even more for those who did not); and the ways in which they lied, again and again, about what they knew, when they knew it, what they had done, and what they had allowed to be done. When tasked about the public interest in exposing a public figure’s affair, a standard rationale from tabloid journalists and executives was that the errant figure was ‘hypocritical’ in endorsing, implicitly or explicitly, one set of moral standards and living by another. Few such figures, however, could compare with that hypocrisy by which News International lived: an example widely copied.

Fifth, journalism has been at the heart of a generally optimistic narrative of freedom and openness over the past three decades, as communism collapsed in central and eastern Europe, apartheid ended in South Africa, media deregulation in India saw an explosion of news media in both broadcasting and print, and partial privatization and the granting of a measure of editorial freedom was allowed to the news media in China, which has elevated the struggle for a journalism of accountability to one of the major elements of a wider push for democratic change. At least until recently, it has been assumed that the world was getting freer, and in getting freer was becoming more open; and that this was due, in considerable part, to the globalization, and liberating effects, of independent news media and their democratic ethic.

The assumptions and methods of, especially, U.S. journalism have spread around the world, and have been adopted by journalists almost everywhere. At the core of the American way of journalism is disclosure – the people’s right to know: and with that, a distrust of the state and of other institutions of great power, as potential or actual centers of control and suppression. Yet most places in the world are not the USA nor the other liberal democracies which, in the main, protect and nourish combative media. In most places, where journalists wish to practice a journalism of disclosure of facts deemed by the powers that be as inconvenient to be published, they must risk censorship and must practice some subterfuge. Yet the fact that what liberals regard as ‘true’ journalism – journalism which, in Timothy Garton Ash’s phrase, is factual and can thus be subversive of everything from bureaucratic obstructiveness to systematic state oppression or corporate criminality – is what active and idealistic journalists everywhere now aspire to, was a huge step.

The British news media had been among the leaders in celebrating these developments, yet simultaneously some of them were busily undermining freedom at home, by spying on the private affairs of a wide group of people and by using media power to cow elected politicians. The subsequent round of abject apologies by everyone involved – Rupert and James Murdoch, and Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International – were of course part of a public relations strategy aimed at rehabilitation and the limitation of damage to the mother company, News Corporation. Apologies were necessary, but missed the larger point.

Though the journalism of the Murdoch British titles can be accurate and revelatory in its reporting, analytically sharp, at times investigative and with commentators who are among the most readable in journalism, they and journalism as a whole have been badly damaged by some of their News International colleagues and by the company’s senior executives. They betrayed what all of the News Corporation’s many newspapers and networks insist is their prime function: to hold power to account. They did so by smashing into what people assumed were their private communications; and by interpreting their watchdog function as one of political bullying, the explicit or implicit threat of blackmail, and the assassination of characters and institutions they did not like.

The newspapers wielded a power which only, in the end, became accountable because of the revelations of their criminality and abuse. Journalism’s honor was, in the end, salvaged by the fact that the main sources of the revelations were, in the first and main place, the Guardian and in the second, the New York Times, the latter of which gave the story global validation by promoting it as a major event. Both were derided by News International executives as acting solely from the motive of dragging down the opposition. Rebekah Brooks, when still chief executive of News International, claimed that the Guardian’s investigation ‘substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public’; and Bill Akass, managing editor of the NotW, said that the New York Times investigation ‘was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to harm a competitor’ (the competitor being the Wall Street Journal, which had added a New York supplement to its weekend edition). All of these statements, and much else, were burned up in bonfire of their, and others’, vanity that the British press had a robust, anti-establishment, irrepressible popular press, an example to the world. That part of it which could answer reasonably to that description has been comprehensively tainted by the theater of cruelty staging its shows in another part of the building.

The last consideration is of the future. The right to privacy was at the core of the News International affair, and it will benefit in the short run. The quite unrelated case won by the Formula One chairman Max Mosley against the News of the World in 2009, some time before the scandal fully broke, punished the paper for revealing that he took part in and paid for a sado-masochistic evening with a number of prostitutes dressed in skimpy Wehrmacht ‘uniforms’. Mosley took the money, but refused to run away from further publicity and mockery: instead, he became a campaigner against sex-scandal revelatory journalism, arguing for a provision in the law which would force newspapers to approach the object of their exposure with details of the story before it was published – a proposal which was rejected by the European Court of Human Rights in May 2011. The Mosley/NotW judgment itself, bitterly resented by the tabloids, established an area in which private behavior which was legal and harmed no-one could, whatever its content, be protected from salacious discovery. Mosley became a campaigner – with the actor Hugh Grant, who had had a brief liaison with a prostitute, Divine Brown, in Los Angeles publicized in 1995 – against the tabloid culture: both men joined the campaign Hacked Off, founded by Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust. The assumption by the tabloids had been that those who were exposed in this fashion would be so ashamed, so terrified of further exposure, or required good relations with the mass media so much (the Cameron/Mandelson position), that they would skulk away and cause no trouble: Grant and Mosley showed considerable courage in defying that logic. Privacy, and the right to it, won a round.

But not the fight. One of those who argued that the NotW had done no fundamental wrong was John Cook, of the Gawker family of websites which specialize in gossip and revelation of private lives. He wrote that

all sorts of good stories require sleazy, gross, ‘risible’ behavior that falls short of outright criminality, and the last thing England [sic] needs is a cowed press corps worried about bringing down sanctions for coloring outside the journalistic lines. And the last people you want writing the playbook for acceptable journalistic behavior are the politicians you are supposed to be covering.

Gawker is an important phenomenon; it has been able to grow and to flourish because of a very large public appetite for what it sells: gossip, celebrity news, and sexual revelation. The columnist Nick Cohen wrote that the ‘News of the World routinely humiliated and taunted its targets because of their sex lives. Far from throwing the paper aside in disgust, the News of the World’s audience wanted more of the same.’

The humbling of News International, welcome as it was and is, actually runs against the grain of the times: privacy is shrinking. It may provoke a recoil long-lasting enough to give the laws against interception of messages some force, and thus to diminish the practice. It may encourage politicians to cease to regard the tabloids as capricious deities which must be constantly placated with the sacrifice of principles – at least for a time. But the engines put into motion by the demands of an insatiable curiosity will find new routes.

PHOTO: News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch holds a copy of The Times newspaper as he leaves his home in London July 20, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

2 comments

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Mr. Lloyd, you have written an apology, presenting criminal activities as merely unethical or immoral. The media’s power has made its journalists corrupt. We members of the public are squeezed between the two pincers of the establishment, government and the media, that feed off each other: the plutocrats support both. In Murdoch, an evil alliance has taken hold. He is a plutocrat who aims to control the worldwide media. He reminds me of the evil villains in superhero stories–they want to control the world for their own unholy ends. “Now,” as would bemoan a Chapulin Colorado character in distress, “who will be able to save us?” Not the courts, it looks like. The chicken farmer has been guarding the henhouse while under extorsion by…the fox?

Posted by march12 | Report as abusive

It’s good to get a balanced and incisive essay like this.
The so-called RedTops (not Rebecca, though she would do; UK papers with a streak of Red on the front page) have such endless cheap titillation that I can’t understand how it sustains anything but a yawn.
Next, arguments are (for obvious reasons) distilled to One-Liners maybe backed up by a paragraph.
I can’t see how these enthusiastic “newspaper men”, now out of a job, could live with what they were doing. Even if the public wanted titillation (a la Moseley), are they proud of their activities? If the answer is Yes, there’s a good case for Changes to the laws so as to demand certain standards.
As there is for Utility Companies, Airlines etc. (& maybe one day, Banks – only joking).

Posted by eachtohisown | Report as abusive