Like Banquo’s Ghost, the Murdoch Phone Hacking story keeps hovering and refuses to go away. Civic order may collapse in London but all roads eventually lead back to Wapping. The affair is one of the biggest political scandals since Watergate. Carl Bernstein has already
highlighted the similarities, albeit with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, not a Richard Nixon-type White House, being the focal point for revelations and investigations. The latest headlines are extraordinary (in the words of the Guardian ‘News of the World’s ex-royal editor Clive Goodman said phone hacking was ‘widely discussed’ at paper’s meetings’). James Murdoch may be recalled to appear before parliament (whether he appears is another matter) and the scandal comes back to Cameron in the form of the dirty bomb that is Andy Coulson. Look at my works ye mighty and despair.
Rebecca Brooks clung on and on as News International’s Chief Executive. Rupert Murdoch appears to have closed a newspaper in vain, albeit a tawdry rag that won’t be missed, to try to save the career of his favourite henchwoman. The Murdoch brand has been destroyed, his aura of power, his bullying contempt for decency and democracy in Britain has been scythed; he may well hang on to the rest of his business conglomerate, but when it comes to exercising raw political power, he is a spent force. He has polluted journalism and has been a stain on the notion of a ‘free press’.
The Tories and Labour have kowtowed to Murdoch since the 1970s. Traditionally, he will back whoever can push through his agenda – he broke Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party and forced ‘New Labour’ to be a supplicant at his feet. The Conservatives, and David Cameron in particular, have been hobbled by their Faustian pact with the Murdoch press; Cameron’s appointment of Andy Coulson looks particularly idiotic and brings his judgment into question. The more David Cameron claims he wasn’t warned of Coulson’s disastrous potential, the more Labour and the Guardian pile on the pressure.
Ed Miliband was having an indifferent few months; his handling of the hacking scandal could well be the making of him. He has acknowledged Labour’s mistakes from the past and frankly, shame, at cosying up to Rupert Murdoch and now has the look of a man unbound; he and his party more to gain than to lose by going after News International. He has surveyed the bizarre Met Police investigation, the unconscionable hacking of possibly thousands of phones and the public disgust at the recent turn of events. Labour have set many of the terms of the debate; they could drive a wedge in the Coalition and align Labour and the Liberal Democrats as future government partners.
The only party that can really hold its head up for past behaviour are the Liberal Democrats. From the days of Paddy Ashdown’s humiliation (‘Paddy Pantsdown’) and before, Clegg’s party have never curried favour with News International. And now they can get some major brownie points by pointing this out. They never took the Murdoch shilling. Nick Clegg needs to grasp this as an opportunity to recover lost ground after having been perceived as Cameron’s mudguard.
A great deal of credit must go to Hugh Grant and others in ‘Hacked Off’ campaign who have done a lot of the running in this whole scandal. They and all decent people have been revolted by the behaviour of News International. Regulation of the Press will be strengthened; Lord Justice Levenson, will, according to Cameron, have the following frames of reference:
‘The culture, practices and ethics of the press, their relationship with the police, the failure of the current system of regulation, the contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians, why previous warnings about press misconduct were not heeded and the issue of cross-media ownership…The second part of the inquiry will examine, the extent of unlawful or improper conduct at the News of the World and other newspapers. And the way in which management failures may have allowed this to happen. This part of the Inquiry will also look into the original police investigation and the issue of corrupt payments to police officers. And it will consider the implications for the relationships between newspapers and the police.’
Levenson’s recommendations will be keenly awaited. In the meantime, criminal investigations proceed apace; the Murdochs are still in charge of News International and Rupert Murdoch is still an incredibly wealthy man. But his bid for BSkyB majority control, which he was forced to withdraw, would have had the contempt of Westminster and the British people. The man who brought you the ‘News of the World’ is watching his own world implode all around him. Millions of people will be happy with this