A veritable industry has arisen from “hackgate” – the ongoing phone hacking scandal centring on Murdoch-owned media interests – with at least six judicial, police and parliamentary inquiries; and spin-off conferences, books and press coverage writes Piers Mostyn.
Underlying the frenzy, Britain’s ruling elite fears there is a price to be paid for the corruption and sleaze. So it has embarked on a bid at exorcism with the washing of at least some of its dirty linen in public. In the process the veil has been temporarily lifted, providing a rare opportunity to see the puppet masters at work.
Labour MP Chris Bryant has described Scotland Yard as being “suborned” and effectively a subsidiary of News International. He estimates that 486 lies have been told to parliament by News International, the police and other organisations relating to the scandal.
We have learnt of Margaret Thatcher’s secret meeting with Murdoch back in 1981 – paving the way for his take over of the Sun and the Times. More trivially David Cameron has had to admit riding a horse loaned to ex-News of the World (NOW) editor Rebekah Brooks by the police on its retirement from 13 years of service with the riot squad.
The Murdoch press is revealed to have employed ex-police, army intelligence and special forces officers to engage in hacking and surveillance – causing disruption to major murder investigations that have included the Lawrence murder and the Ipswich serial killings. NOW is alleged to have attempted to subvert police inquiries into the murder of private detective Daniel Morgan, killed with an axe to the head as he was about to expose police corruption. There has been bribery of police, defence and perhaps other officials. And lawyers acting for hacking victims have been placed under surveillance with a view to assembling smear stories to discredit them.
Former deputy editor of NOW, Neil Wallis, has told the Leveson Inquiry that he acted as unofficial adviser to three successive Met Police commissioners – helping them deal with crisis management on such issues as police corruption. The Guardian described his testimony as “striking a confident note … relaxed and at time mischievous”. Arrested in July and still on police bail, these revelations look like his insurance policy against any future charges. A warning that he knows where the bodies are buried.
News Corp, the Murdoch parent company, has been accused of fiddling circulation figures for the Wall Street Journal and employing computer hackers, (through a pirate website it secretly controls) to undermine the business of the chief TV rival of Sky in Britain, leaving a clear field in the immensely lucrative business of pay-TV.
The fallout from the ongoing scandal has included costs to News Corp running into hundreds of millions of pounds. The heir apparent to Rupert Murdoch, his son James, has been forced off the boards of Sotheby’s, GlaxoSmithKline and News International and out of the chair of BSkyB. Meanwhile Ofcom is looking into the suitability of Murdoch involvement with Sky and FBI criminal investigations in the USA loom.
The tidal wave of theft, privacy invasion and corruption allegations is leaving traces across a broad range of corporations and state bodies. The latest relating to a Virgin Atlantic employee selling celebrity travel details to a firm of paparazzi photographers. Virgin boss Richard Branson is regularly touted by the political establishment as an icon of populist, but ethical capitalism.
Undoubtedly there is more to come. Without question the illegal trade in stolen data is widespread. What has been exposed will only be the tip of the iceberg. The question is whether the revelations will lead to any real change.
The terms of the debate has shifted. Few now try to defend the flimsy initial police claim that an urgent need to tackle the “terror” threat explained its five year failure to investigate. Not while its bosses were wined and dined across London’s top eateries by NOW and Sun hacks.
But it is increasingly clear that the Leveson Inquiry is unequal to the task. Media barons (through Tory peer Hunt) and the police have pre-empted its conclusions by imposing their own reform packages – with proposals for a revamped Press Complaints Commission and the Filkin inquiry into the police-press relations.
A cosy consensus has developed: that the problem is reducible to minor press regulatory reform, with parameters defined by the very media corporations responsible for the scandal and that a limited clear out of rotten wood should suffice.
But one powerful wing of the establishment has been organising its own slow-burning backlash against any settling of scores.
In July Tony Blair (since exposed as god-father to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children) intervened behind the scenes in a bid to get Tom Watson MP – dogged in exposing “hackgate” – to lay off News Corp.
Boris Johnson, perhaps with an eye on May’s London Mayoral elections, has pulled back from his 2010 denunciation of the whole affair as “a load of old codswallop got up by the Labour Party”. But his police and crime commissioner, Kit Malthouse has been directly intervening with the Met, complaining at the level of resources devoted to the investigations because of a “political and media-driven level of hysteria”.
Without a trace of irony, Cameron has warned that the main victim of any restrictions on media ownership would be the BBC and former Met Commissioner John Stevens has suggested that too much police accountability might increase the likelihood of further riots!
A key player in this counter-offensive is Education Secretary Michael Gove. A former Murdoch employee and leader of the vanguardist wing of the Tory party, he has brazenly attacked the inquiry as creating a “chilling atmosphere” towards “freedom of expression”; claiming that laws were already in place to deal with “rogue” reporters (thus loyally sticking to the defence trotted out by News International since 2006); and claiming, in the face of this slew of corruption revelations, that the press has helped to keep us “honest” and ensured a “high standard of debate”.
Gove’s academy programme which will soon result in the complete privatisation of the state school system will undoubtedly lead to new profit-making opportunities for his pals in the Murdoch empire, which has been quietly developing a sideline in education services.
Key News International employees, like Trevor Kavanagh, former Sun political editor have been emboldened to defend the company. Following dawn raids on a string of Sun journalists this was whipped up into a hypocritical frenzy by hacks whose life careers had been oiled by cheering on such police operations.
When leading Met cop Sue Akers told Leveson that the Sun had established a “network of corrupt officials” and a “culture of illegal payments”, the offensive cloaked itself in the garb of the state with Attorney General Dominic Grieve announcing that he would examine whether she was in contempt for prejudicing any future trial. A thinly veiled warning to any others tempted to speak out.
For his part, Rupert Murdoch is banking on reining in his son; throwing money at victims; and co-operation with the police. But it’s also business as usual, with his confident launch of a Sunday tabloid to replace NOW.
The counter-offensive has begun to bear small fruits. Rebekah Brooks has won her campaign to be assigned as “core participant” in the Leveson Inquiry (denied to her for the past six months). Uniquely for a criminal suspect, this will give her early confidential views of witness statements prior to any charge that she may face.
In addition the Culture, Media and Sport select committee is reported to be toning down its forthcoming report – intimidated by accusations that it might prejudice any future trials. A privilege the Murdoch press was never keen to award the many suspects splashed across its front pages over the decades. News International is alleged to have been intervening directly in the committee, by selectively briefing its members – now reported to be “impressed” by an unsolicited letter from James Murdoch. A foretaste of newly-found forgiveness on the part of the establishment?
It was the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times – breaking with a thirty year failure to engage in serious investigative journalism – that in late March was responsible for one of Cameron’s current major headaches, the “cash for access” scandal. That looked a bit like payback for Leveson.
On the back of “cash for access”, a budget robbing the poor to give to the rich and a government-engineered petrol shortage – support for the Tories has dropped. Poll ratings for all three party leaders have plummeted. And their parties have reeled from George Galloway’s stunning 18,000 vote by-election victory in Labour’s “safe” Bradford West seat.
How long will it be before the political establishment comes running back to Murdoch and his ilk?