The rottenness of British political culture, in a country where the lives of so many have been subjugated by lies for so long, has now been on public view for the last few weeks. The country’s most powerful media baron is forced by events to close down his profitable Sunday paper—News of the World— specializing in celebrity sex stories and using its close links with the police to get tip-offs about murder investigations, disappearances, etc. They went too far by hacking the mobile phone of a murder victim and stealing the messages, thus creating an impression that she might still be alive.
It was this that triggered a nationwide revulsion shining the torch on politicians and the senior most policemen in the country. Why had David Cameron hired a senior Murdoch journalist as his press chief? Why had Scotland Yard hired another senior journalist from the same stable? Of course we know why, but the fact that it has now become an outrage makes it unacceptable.
It’s a very British scandal, of the sort that erupts suddenly and immediately becomes a national preoccupation. One almost feels that the psycho-politics underlying this for most people, those who live outside the bubble world of power, money and celebritydom, is partially escapist and a substitute for the anger that people genuinely feel against a corrupt and corrupting political establishment of the country: bankers, media barons, politicians, judges and the police. The economy is in a mess, austerity measures are in place, Scotland is seriously disaffected, but at least Members of Parliament can question Rupert Murdoch and his son and watch them apologizing and cringing in public.
Murdoch came to life twice. First when he applauded the Daily Telegraph for exposing MP’s fiddling their expenses and urged them to follow the transparent model offered by Singapore and secondly when a protester threw some shaving foam at him and got punched by Wendi Murdoch. For the rest the Murdochs put on a good double act. Young James sounding like an Enron executive after the collapse and a moist-eyed Rupert explaining how he had learnt his journalism from his brilliant father who had exposed the disaster at Gallipoli. And after the rehearsed drama? Even if Murdoch doesn’t aquire all of BskyB, will anything really change?
The Murdoch Empire has dominated British politics since the days of Margaret Thatcher. She gave him satellite television. He destroyed the print unions and his newspapers helped to destroy the miners. He was instrumental in creating a culture that glorified privatizations, free-market dogmas, wars, (all of Murdoch’s nearly 300 papers in different parts of the world supported the Iraq war), etc. The right-wing populism unleashed by the Thatcher-Murdoch combination neutered the public ethos created after the Second World War. So strong was this influence that others newspapers and television networks (like Channel Four and the BBC) lost confidence in themselves and became pale imitations in search of circulations and ratings. Classical music, loved by many regardless of class or creed or race, was considered elitist and disallowed on BBC 2.
Thatcher’s Blue Labour heirs, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown continued the worship of money and Murdoch. Blair continuously abased himself before the media baron. Brown did the same. Murdoch press editors became regular guests at official residences; their own private parties regularly attended by Prime Ministers and their entourage. Just yesterday Murdoch said that he and Gordon Brown met regularly. Their families became friends. David Cameron followed suit, making it clear that despite his class background he could be just like Blair and embrace anyone and everything that linked big money and politics.
It was Peter Oborne, a journalist writing for the always-conservative Daily Telegraph who provided a coruscating pen-portrait of Cameron, suggesting that he had consciously descended to the sewer by becoming part of the louche Chipping Norton set:
“He should never have employed Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor, as his director of communications. He should never have cultivated Rupert Murdoch. And – the worst mistake of all – he should never have allowed himself to become a close friend of Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of the media giant News International, whose departure from that company in shame and disgrace can only be a matter of time. We are talking about a pattern of behaviour here. Indeed, it might be better described as a course of action. Mr Cameron allowed himself to be drawn into a social coterie in which no respectable person, let alone a British prime minister, should be seen dead.”
Cameron has shown himself quite as authoritarian and opportunist as Blair in his handling of the party. But if the political lava from this volcanic scandal continues to flow, the British Prime Minister, currently wounded by the revelations might have little option but to fall on his sword. We have not reached that stage.
Meanwhile the trilateral consensus in the British Parliament will not break with neo-liberalism and its dogmas that are creating havoc throughout Europe. That is the problem which, unlike Murdoch’s battered media empire, won’t go away.
Tariq Ali is the author of The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power.