Let us not be taken in by the horror, and the stone-faced cries of "shame!" now evinced by politicians of all stripes in Britain at the "shocking," "ghastly," behavior of News of the World and the Murdoch media empire. Let's be clear: This is not horror; it's revenge with a healthy side dish of schadenfreude.
The nature of the
abusive relationship between Britain's tabloid press and its politicians was
perhaps best illustrated way back in 1992. Britain had just been forced to
withdraw, humiliatingly, from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. John Major,
the Conservative prime minister, called Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of the Sun, to ask how the tabloid planned to
cover the story. MacKenzie's
reply has become a matter of Fleet Street legend. "Well, John, let me
put it this way," said MacKenzie. "I've got a large bucket of shit
lying on my desk, and tomorrow morning I'm going to pour it all over your head."
Funny? Perhaps. But also revolting, not only because of the image, but because of the sense of entitlement and zeal for bullying it revealed. This week the balance of power has, for the time being, shifted; for the first time in decades, it is the tabloid press that's on the receiving end.
And what a wallop they're taking. Rupert Murdoch's decision to withdraw his bid to purchase a majority stake in the satellite broadcaster BSkyB represents a political triumph for Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party. It's Miliband who has been leading the movement questioning the Australian-born media tycoon's fitness to pass the broadcast regulator Ofcom's "fit and proper" test of character for media proprietors. By the evening of Tuesday, July 12, it was clear all parties agreed that Murdoch should, at the very least, put his bid on hold pending the report of a hastily established public inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal.
acquiescence also represents a sea change in British public life. Murdoch, to put
it mildly, is not used to being beaten. Since he arrived in Britain in 1968, he
has steadily risen to become the most influential media baron of the age -- perhaps the
last remaining press baron, the like of whom will never be seen again. So it is
remarkable that in the space of just seven days he has been forced to close the
News of the World, his most
profitable British newspaper, and now, to end his pursuit of the long-coveted
BSkyB. He no longer seems capable of intimidating the political establishment
by threatening to unleash the fury of his media empire. For once, the biter has
There was a palpable sense in the House of Commons on Wednesday of Parliament fighting back -- not only on behalf of the British people, but also on behalf of themselves -- against the country's rapacious newspaper culture.
In truth, few Britons objected when the victims of tabloid zeal were the rich and famous or, even better, politicians. They were considered "fair game" -- public figures who should know that tabloid intrusion was part of the celebrity circus, the life they had chosen. It was only when the victims were revealed to also include "ordinary people," such as the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and Afghanistan veterans that the public mood turned against the tabloid pack. Few readers harbored illusions about the nature of the papers they bought, but they preferred not to dwell on these realities. Now that it's open season on the tabloids, the public, hypocritical as ever, is happy to cheer on the flogging.
But the public outrage has given Parliament an opportunity to reassert its prerogatives and properly investigate a scandal that implicates the Metropolitan Police, politicians of all parties, and the biggest press baron of them all, Murdoch. There are few innocents on Fleet Street or at Westminster, but this, as Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday, has become a moment for "cleaning stables."
has largely focused on the shady activities of the Murdoch newspapers, it would
be wrong to conclude that they are the only publications in the dock. Almost
every major newspaper in Britain is implicated to one degree or another in the
scandal. All have records of paying for information obtained by questionable
means; many editors are probably quietly thankful now that they were simply not
as good at it as their competitors at the News
of the World and the Sun.
The practical benefit of the tabloids' special cynicism, aside from sales, was the leverage they gained over politicians. Tony Blair, recalling the way previous Labour leaders had been "monstered" by the Murdoch press, flew to Australia to ingratiate himself with News Corp. executives. Proving to Murdoch that Labour was changing and could be trusted to lead was an indispensable part of Blair's path to Downing Street.
The Murdoch papers were not initially impressed by the Eton and Oxford-educated Cameron when he surprisingly became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, and Cameron, in turn, initially kept his distance from the Murdoch empire. Peter Oborne, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, has reported that Cameron's first meetings with Murdoch went poorly. According to one leading News International figure: "We told David exactly what to say and how to say it in order to please Rupert. But Cameron wouldn't play ball. I can't understand it."