Piers Mostyn updates us on further events around the News International phone hacking scandal.
One week on a lot more has happened. As radio commentator Steve Hewlett put it, “any association with Murdoch and his papers, which quite naturally everybody has had in some form is now so toxic … I mean, look: it’s carnage. It’s almost as if the light has suddenly come on, and everybody has said: ‘Good Lord – were we doing that?’”.
- Acres of media coverage (the Guardian printing 8-10 full pages on the issue for the past fortnight) but most of it doing little more than reciting the facts – analysis generally being superficial. An exception is Seamus Milne in today’s Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/20/scandal-exposed-scale-elite-corruption) who compares the Murdoch empire to a mafia “family”. Part of the continuing fascination with The Godfather films and the excellent TV drama The Sopranos lies in the way they use the mafia as a metaphor for capitalism. In the recent developments we see a full revelation of that metaphor and the exposure of capitalism as mafia operation.Here is a small selection of the last seven days developments:
• Rebekah Brooks resigned from News International and was then arrested and held for 12 hours until midnight on Sunday. She then protested about this saying she had agreed to come in as a witness but was tricked; that no evidence against her was presented; that this is an intolerable slur on her reputation and even that she would sue the police. She forgets that this is how every criminal suspect is treated, generally a lot better – her door wasn’t battered in at 5.30 am. She seems unaware that all that is required is a reasonable suspicion of an offence. There is no requirement to “produce evidence” let alone prove it. Her purpose is to suggest that even suspecting her is an outrage. Hardly evidence of contrition and certainly no understanding of how the public view her position. More than a trace of irony given her very lucrative career in a news empire with a daily trade in vilifying criminal suspects going through an identical process: publishing photos and full details of allegations and then not the fact that no charges were pressed, or charges were dropped or the verdict was Not Guilty.
• Met Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson resigned. Protesting his innocence. Yet it doesn’t look good that he accepted expensive hospitality from Champneys health farm which is closely connected to the News International empire through a variety of means.
• Met Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates resigned. Protesting his innocence. Over the appointment of Neil Wallis, ex-NOTW deputy editor, as Met PR advisor and allegations that Yates helped Wallis’s daughter get employment.
• Cameron’s position looking increasingly difficult. Particularly his hiring of Andy Coulson, ex NOTW editor, despite being specifically warned about allegations relating to him and NI by the Guardian and others. If there is reason for top coppers to resign then surely there is reason for Cameron to do the same. Coulson himself has also now been arrested. Cameron had to cut short an African trip to make announcements and answer questions. Increasingly he looks like someone caught with his hands in the till. But he has the chutzpah to suggest that there are serious ethical problems in the police at a senior level and fresh blood from outside is needed – as if precisely the same point didn’t apply to him. On Wednesday 20th he finally issued a statement of regret about hiring Coulson, “with 20/20 hindsight, and all that has followed, I would not have offered him the job … “ hedging about with qualifications about Coulson being innocent until proven guilty and that he won’t make a “profound” apology until it is shown that he had been lied to. This is a classic “non-apology”, claiming absolute innocence, but hoping to get the kudos of expressing regret. In some ways the worst of all worlds for Cameron as it leaves him looking completely non-credible and won’t make the issue go away.
• Whistleblower found dead. Sean Hoare, the former NOTW journalist who is one of two whistleblowers at the heart of the scandal, the first to go on the record in naming Coulson as knowing about the hacking. The golden rule in British history is that at the heart of every state scandal there has to be an unexplained death. In my humble opinion the death of David Kelly (top ranking Defence Intelligence expert who exposed the lies behind the Iraq invasion) definitely did look suspicious even if it is difficult to find solid evidence to prove it. Hoare’s death may not be. This was a man who was clearly very unwell as a result of years of Class A drug addiction at the behest of the Murdoch empire in the pursuit of showbiz scoops. Interestingly he was a Labour Party-supporting socialist of the Clause IV variety – in favour of public ownership of the means of production.
• Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks summoned before House of Commons committee. Billed in advance as a “day of drama” by the media. More of a damp squib. The MPs didn’t lay a glove on them. What mattered though is what they denied and didn’t say rather than any dramatic humiliation under cross-examination. The denial by everyone of any knowledge about anything was clearly a pack of lies and hopefully highly educational for the viewing public globally.
• Murdoch empire finally halts payment of hacker Mulcaire legal fees. Incredible that it took 20 days into the crisis to finally bite this bullet. Of course News International were buying Mulcaire’s silence. They must have finally balanced the issues and reckoned, after Murdoch’s questioning by MPs on global TV about it, what ever risk of Mulcaire spilling the beans now is less than the guilt by association that these payments suggested.
• Tory Mayor Boris Johnson: has executed a handbrake turn in an attempt to repair some of the damage caused by his earlier scornful outbursts against those raising this issue. The problem for him, and all the others, is that so much water has passed under the bridge without them lifting a finger that the more they protest the worse it looks. Ken Livingstone ought to be in a position to slay Johnson over this, with both of them competing for an upcoming mayoral election. Unfortunately he hasn’t and he won’t for a variety of reasons. First the original botched investigation by the Met was on his watch as mayor and his track record at holding the police to account was very bad. Secondly, right up until ten days ago, even after the recent scandal broke he was defending the top coppers who were subsequently forced to resign, just as he defended the previous Met Commissioner Blair and his cohorts over the assassination of Jean Charles De Menezes.
• House of Commons Home Affairs Committee castigates police handling of the issue. The committee’s stance is of course correct, but nonetheless motivated like all other parties to this scandal by the fact that it’s own total ineffectiveness (if not wilful blindness) in tackling corruption, crime and sleaze has been exposed.
• The issue has gone international: with allegations of the hacking of phones of 9/11 victims; concerns raised about the Murdoch ownership of the Wall Street Journal; questions raised in Australia and doubtless more to come.
This affair clearly has far to go. The damage to the police can’t be underestimated and without a doubt an already shaky government has been considerably weakened, likely to eke out its term as something of a lame duck. The government may not be brought down in the short term (barring further major developments), but if resistance to austerity hots up, especially with autumn strikes, it is capable of collapsing particularly as the Lib Dems start running scared. Certainly time to warm up calls for the government to go.
What is at stake is not simply corrupt media barons. It is the credibility of a network of institutions at the heart of a state whose modus operandi over centuries has rested on its implacable claim to integrity and quiet authority.
The “story” still being pursed by media and political pundits alike is individual responsibility. This is obviously important. But there is an avoidance of the systemic nature of the scandal – within Newscorp, within corporate capitalism, and within the state.
What we have witnessed with the police in particular is a “hollowing out” of the state. Over the past 3 decades the left has rightly focussed on privatisation and Private Finance Initiatives as public services have been transferred to the private sector. But those services remaining wholly public have been degraded from within – partly through sub-contracting and hiring consultants, partly through a decay in ethos. It never occurred to these top officers that there might be a conflict of interest in their conduct or if they did, they were so blasé as to assume no one else would care.
The left and the labour movement have been almost entirely absent. The unions have remained largely silent.
Undoubtedly Labour, in the person of its leader has upped it’s profile. But it is heavily implicated. There are very few Labour MPs who aren’t tainted – if only through their failure to speak out against their leadership’s close association with the Murdoch empire over such a long time. Like it or not they nearly all bought into or acquiesced in this Faustian pact.
Much has been made of Miliband’s so-called “leadership” on the issue, but the reality has been lack-lustre. All he has done is place himself a very short distance ahead of the pack. With the Lib Dems handcuffed to the Tories, it’s a no-brainer for any opposition party to make some capital out of this situation. But the position of Miliband and party won’t become credible without a bold redressing of the whole trajectory of New Labour under Blair and Brown. This hasn’t happened, despite a superficial distancing. Miliband is too weak – he never had a strong independent base in parliament. His election rested on union support that is now turning against him for scabbing on the June 30 public sector strike.
The Miliband hype was soon punctured in a Guardian/ICM poll on Tuesday 19th July suggesting that the public aren’t impressed: there has been no increase in support for Labour. It is an astonishing fact that 18 days into this political crisis (and well into a vicious austerity offensive) the Tories are still one point ahead of Labour at 37% in the polls.
An initiative is required to give voice to a working class and socialist perspective:
• to reverse the Wapping defeats and re-instate strong unions in the media;
• for severe restrictions of the rights of private capital to dominate the media;
• to remove politicians associated with the Murdoch group;
• for an ongoing labour movement inquiry into the whole affair with the aim of establishing facts; providing an alternative perspective in the interests of the working class; and monitoring and criticising the official investigations.
A visible movement needs to be created with real power to hold the state, the media, the police and all the rest to account and to fight for a programme of reforms. It is essential that the unions wake up and start shouting. The media unions are key.
The danger is that, in the absence of a radical alternative to vested interests, the old structures – like an old Victorian building whose shell is kept intact as the old rotting timbers are stripped out and reconstructed from the inside – will be refurbished and maintained. There may even be an attempt to launch a “modernise Britain” offensive to regain the initiative. In the absence of a real alternative the opening will be lost.
It may be that the chief value of these events will be educational: raising mass consciousness and therefore confidence in the working class and demoralising and disorganising the ruling class. A stepping stone that might help transform the underlying dynamics of class relations from the ossified state of inertia they have lain in for the past 2 or 3 decades.
It is of interest that in the past 24 hours the CPS has dropped the cases against 109 activists from UK Uncut involved in a sit-in of Fortnum and Mason’s on 26th March. And 20 environmental activists have had convictions quashed, following the furore over police undercover infiltration and entrapment, the Court of Appeal finding that undercover officer Kennedy had been unlawfully spying on the activists.