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The phone-hacking scandal: profits, power and corruption
The Leveson inquiry into phone hacking has gone to the heart of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, exposing its thoroughly rotten and corrupt workings. Now, Rebekah Brooks, former editor of The Sun and News of the World, has been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. PETER TAAFFE reviews a new book detailing the scandal and its consequences.
Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the corruption of Britain
By Tom Watson and Martin Hickman
Published by Allen Lane (2012), £20
THE SCANDAL OF mass phone hacking, the violation of the privacy of countless individuals by Rupert Murdoch and his empire, and the complicity of the whole of the British establishment has the potential to become Britain's equivalent of Watergate. That event and its repercussions brought down the US president, Richard Nixon, the ‘most powerful man in the world’. He had come to office with a massive electoral majority and seemed impervious to any subsequent challenge. Yet the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in 1972 was the distant fluttering of a butterfly's wings which, eventually, led to the office of president of the United States and his resignation in August 1974.
In contrast to Nixon, David Cameron just sneaked into power with the assistance of the Liberal Democrats. But his toxic connection with Murdoch and his main cohorts – the discredited Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – now threatens the same result in Britain: the abrupt ending of Cameron’s premiership and possibly that of the government itself. Certainly Robert Redford, the star of All the President’s Men, Hollywood’s take on Watergate, seems to think that this is possible because he says he is interested in making a film about the Murdochgate saga!
To reinforce the point, Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who exposed Nixon, sees the parallel when he states, in Dial M for Murdoch: "Too many of us have winked in amusement at the salaciousness without considering the wider corruption of journalism and politics, promulgated by Murdoch Culture on both sides of the Atlantic". If Cameron was to be mortally wounded by this scandal, it would be in no small measure down to the sheer determination and doggedness of Tom Watson who, together with Martin Hickman, has co-authored this quite remarkable book.
Given Watson’s previous history on the right wing of the Labour Party – he moved the motion to formally wind up the predominantly Marxist and socialist Labour Party Young Socialists in 1992 – few could have predicted that he would, in time, produce such a searing indictment not just of Murdoch but of the whole of the capitalist ‘free’ press. He also takes to task the police who connived with Murdoch, the toothless Press Complaints Commission, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Tory party and its leadership for accepting payoffs from Murdoch for writing in his newspapers. In particular, Watson exposes the close collaboration and support of the Tories for Murdoch's attempts to undemocratically control the great majority of Britain's media.
Nor is he hesitant in his condemnation of all the leaders of the three main political parties, including the leadership of his own party, New Labour. He describes how Tony Blair fawned on Murdoch – even secretly becoming the godfather of Murdoch’s child with his third wife Wendy Deng. Gordon Brown also bent the knee to Murdoch despite he and his wife being reduced to tears in 2006 by the decision of the Sun to produce photographs of his sick son. Ed Miliband continued the tradition of New Labour leaders ingratiating themselves by attending Murdoch’s summer gatherings of the great and good.
Murdoch most foul
BUT, AS WATSON makes clear, he underwent a change through his experience in the whip’s office in parliament during the Labour government, particularly as a result of the mounting deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also disillusioned by Blair whose wife, Cherie, even charged the Labour Party for haircuts! But it was Blair's refusal to timetable his departure which reinforced Watson’s support for Brown to replace him.
This brought him into collision with the Sun newspaper, which continued to back Blair. Watson then discovered what many workers and others had experienced before him: what it was like to be on the receiving end of the wrath of the ‘Sun King’, Murdoch, and those who enjoyed his support. The Sun called Watson the ringleader of a "plotting gang of weasels" opposed to Blair. The Sun’s political editor, George Pascoe-Watson, warned Brown: "My editor [Rebekah Brooks] will pursue you for the rest of your life. She will never forgive you for what you did to her Tony".
The antagonism grew as the Murdoch empire swung over to support the new Tory leader, Cameron. Other events brought Watson into collision with Murdoch and the Sun’s gutter journalists, who denounced "Treacherous Tom Watson – a tub of lard who is known without affection at Westminster as ‘Two Dinners’ Tommy". A Sun journalist subsequently confessed that he had been forced to "write knocking stories about Watson that he knew were ‘bollocks’."
Like feudal overlords, the Murdoch clan expected its orders to be carried out to the letter even by the government of the day. Brooks (then known by her maiden name, Wade) texted someone close to Brown to urge him to sack Watson. The Sun did a mock-up of Watson with other supporters of Brown as threatening characters from the film Reservoir Dogs. By his own admission, this had a devastating effect on him. He recounts walking along a beach, "in tears".
This has happened to many other people, some of them ‘celebrities’ and others who were not. They were usually reduced to emotional wrecks and gave up any resistance to the Murdoch juggernaut. In Watson's case, it led to the breakup of his marriage. But it did not have the desired effect in cowing him. Instead, it led to an admirable determination to confront the Wapping monster. Watson could have turned away and quietly got on with his life. He recounts that many of his friends, while recognising that he had done a good job in exposing Murdoch’s scandals, urged him to back away.
Battling the Murdoch empire
BUT HE STOOD up to Murdoch, drawing in other well-known anti-Murdoch figures, such as Nick Davies of the Guardian and his co-author Martin Hickman of the Independent. He was spurred on by the revelation that phone hacking was taking place on "an industrial scale". This term is used numerous times throughout by different sources, indicating the sheer scale of phone hacking. There are literally thousands of cases of phone hacking under investigation and, at present, at least eleven different inquiries.
One of the most telling features of the book is the support that Watson gives to Tommy Sheridan in his battle with the Murdoch empire, which subsequently led to Tommy’s imprisonment. Tommy had won his first case against Murdoch and the News of the World. Watson writes approvingly: "Sheridan likened his win to the equivalent of football minnows Gretna beating Real Madrid on penalties, adding: ‘They are liars and they have proved they are liars’." He instinctively recognises and supports Tommy Sheridan, who was seeking to confront the anti-union, anti-working class Murdoch machine. What a contrast between those erstwhile ‘socialists’ and former ‘comrades’ of Tommy Sheridan in the Scottish Socialist Party, who appeared as key witnesses for the prosecution, and the principled stand of Watson!
As is widely known, Murdoch appealed, with the additional charge of perjury levelled against Tommy and his wife, Gail. A key issue was whether the News of the World had hacked Sheridan’s phone and withheld information about its financial dealings with witnesses who testified against him. On 17 November 2010, Bob Bird, editor of the Scottish edition of the Sun, told the court that many e-mails about Sheridan had been lost while being transferred from storage to India. Watson, "who had been following the case closely, had knowledge of data protection from his spell at the cabinet office". He briefed Tommy’s legal team on phone hacking, which helped in the three-hour interrogations conducted by Tommy of Coulson, at the time still the prime minister’s spokesman. Coulson denied, predictably, all knowledge of e-mails relating to the case.
However, the BBC television’s Panorama team began its special investigation on phone hacking. This was the first time that the BBC was really involved in the issue. Other broadcasting outlets followed up and this led, finally, to Coulson being interviewed by the police. This process set in motion events which resulted, ultimately, in Coulson being forced to resign as Cameron's communications’ director. Watson writes that he "feared that Sheridan had gone to jail because of misleading evidence, and decided to make contact with him".
If Coulson is now found to have been guilty of lying under oath – and that is a real possibility – then the trial and sentencing of Tommy Sheridan will be seen for what it is: a shameful chapter of illegal conspiracies, involving the Murdoch empire, the police and the judiciary in Scotland, against the man who was an heroic symbol of the anti-poll tax struggle. The ruling class, including Murdoch, never forgave him or the millions of working men and women who defeated the poll tax and Margaret Thatcher. They sought revenge for this, almost two decades later. Tom Watson declared unequivocally at a press conference in Glasgow, while Tommy was still in jail: "Tommy Sheridan may be an innocent man".
Colossal concentration of power
THE POWER, INFLUENCE and reach of the Murdoch empire have been documented before. But it is still shocking to read this account of the seemingly unstoppable rise of Murdoch and the colossal concentration of power in the hands of Murdoch and his family. This would not have been possible without the support, indeed the connivance, of capitalist politicians including Blair, who tried to smooth the way for Murdoch to take over part of Silvio Berlusconi's media outlets in Italy. The present Con-Dem government – and Cameron personally – has been completely compliant with Murdoch’s plans. Only because of public outrage has Murdoch’s power been checked.
Worldwide, News Corporation encompasses 200 newspapers and 52,000 employees bringing news to a billion people daily. Then there are the books, magazines, TV shows and films which chalk up annual sales of $33 billion. In Britain, Murdoch controls 40% of national newspaper circulation and 70% of newspaper markets in Australia. In his adopted United States, he owns the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and the über-rightwing Fox News TV channel. Through these outlets, he exercises great political pull. Murdoch, as is well-known, lent his unswerving support to Thatcher in a holy war against the trade unions. In 1981, Thatcher had facilitated his purchase of the Times newspaper which, in turn, facilitated his successful battle against the trade unions at Wapping in 1986. He expected similar results from Thatcher’s heir, Cameron, this time smoothing the way for Murdoch’s acquisition of all the shares in BSkyB.
The culture secretary Jeremy Hunt – who replaced Vince Cable after the latter was ‘outed’ by the Daily Telegraph as an opponent of Murdoch’s proposal to capture the whole of BSkyB – was quite prepared to nod Murdoch’s plans through. The texts and emails discovered later, revealing the close relationship and almost daily contact with Murdoch’s people, threatened to wreck Hunt’s career. He was saved temporarily because an assistant acted as a ‘human shield’, taking the blame for the texts that came to light. It is unlikely to save him in the long run.
The authors paint a vivid portrait of the warped character of those who worked for Murdoch, particularly those employed on his tabloid newspapers, which are unfortunately typical of the reptile breed who infest journalism. Unbelievably, the muckraking gutter journalists employed on the News of the World, with Coulson as its editor at the time, won the Newspaper of the Year accolade at the British press awards three years running. The judges declared that this newspaper, which has now been forced to shut down following the outcry over the revelations that it hacked the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, had earlier "shown vitality and originality" in exposés of David Beckham and David Blunkett!
An awards event at the Hilton Hotel in London was a "raucous affair". Journalists booed and jeered the handing of gongs to rivals. As the Sun accepted the award for popular journalism, the Live Aid founder, Bob Geldof, stormed the stage. "He told the guests that a visit to the lavatory had confirmed that rock stars ‘have bigger knobs than journalists’." Jeremy Clarkson, the TV personality, punched Piers Morgan. These are the ‘opinion formers’ whom the British people are supposed to hold in awe! In reality, the ‘red tops’ are viewed today with a mixture of fear – particularly if you are on the receiving end of their poison – and contempt.
Above the law?
LIKE A PEBBLE which begins an avalanche, the hacking scandal really erupted with the jailing of a reporter, Clive Goodman, who was revealed to have hacked members of the royal family. The hacking of phones and later of computers had been widely practised before this, but had not been revealed widely up to then. Bestselling newspapers and magazines were driving a black market in illegal data, receiving ex-directory numbers, car registration numbers, health and criminal records. "The targets ranged from glamorous actresses such as Elizabeth Hurley to the families of victims of newsworthy crimes, such as the parents of Holly Wells, a child murdered by the paedophile Ian Huntley at Soham, Cambridgeshire, in 2002".
When these practices were brought to the attention of the police, they were "wilfully blind". Only Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, a former part-time footballer with AFC Wimbledon, were charged with hacking offences. The police were themselves intimidated by News Corporation. Goodman had been convicted in 2006. Following this, the police decided to visit Goodman's desk in Wapping to seize material and financial records.
But they were "confronted with photographers, some from other parts of News International, and these were taking photographs of the officers". A tense stand-off subsequently ensued, with the police barred by News International employees from entering the building to take forensic tests. A detective inspector Pearce feared that the News of the World staff "may offer some form of violence against the small police team in the building". In other words, Murdoch and his empire considered that they were beyond the law. It is inconceivable that such behaviour would have been tolerated by the police in any other circumstance.
Subsequent investigation of Mulcaire's notes revealed the existence of "thousands of names, phone numbers and PIN codes… In all, there were 11,000 pages". Among those listed were cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson – who, ironically, had described the phone hacking scandal as "codswallop" – as well as George Galloway and RMT leader Bob Crow. Goodman, even after his arrest, received his full salary and was used on other stories until he was jailed. Eventually, this led to the resignation of Coulson from News International, implausibly professing that he had not known about hacking. The myth persisted that Goodman was a lone hacker. When that story was discredited, the Murdochs fell back on the excuse of "the rogue newspaper" (News of the World), which was closed in an attempt to save the skin of Rupert Murdoch and his son, James (deputy chief directing officer of News Corp).
The Tories’ News Corp links
EVEN AFTER THESE events, when Coulson's culpability was clear to anybody who cared to examine what had happened, Cameron employed Coulson as his communications director. It has now been revealed there was no real check of Coulson’s background or the fact that he has admitted holding £40,000-worth of News Corporation shares while acting as Cameron’s spokesman. George Osborne was particularly warm towards Coulson because of a "highly controversial story that could have wrecked his career". Watson reveals that Osborne, at the age of 22, had known a dominatrix "who was expecting the baby of one of his friends". The News of the World published the story but with "sympathetic" noises towards Osborne.
Phone hacking was rife at the News of the World, as Watson and Hickman make clear. But a widespread cover-up took place despite the huge amounts News Corporation was compelled to pay out in a series of well-known cases that have been aired in the press. However, while this was going on, it did not stop newspaper groups applying pressure on government ministers to scrap the law specifying custodial terms for those journalists involved in breaches of the Data Protection Act. Watson informs us: "On 11 February 2008, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, who like most cabinet ministers sought to maintain a warm relationship with the press, informed [the information commissioner] that the clause introducing the option of a custodial sentence was likely to be dropped". Brown, in effect, accepted this even though he had suffered brutally at the hands of Murdoch over the death of his son.
In opposition, Cameron and the Tory party grew closer and closer to Rupert Murdoch. Hunt, then shadow culture secretary, claimed that the Tories would abolish the BBC Trust, the governing body of the corporation. This was directly in line with Murdoch’s agenda, spelt out by James Murdoch in his infamous MacTaggart lecture extolling the virtues of profit in all things good, particularly the news media.
At the same time, the close collaboration between the police and News Corporation became evident. A number of policemen were, in effect, organically linked to News International. It was revealed that the chief of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, regularly met Murdoch and other representatives of News Corporation, and enjoyed their lavish hospitality. Stephenson and his wife accepted a 20-day free stay at the £598 a night Champneys health spa in Hertfordshire from an acquaintance of Murdoch luminary, Rebekah Brooks, and her husband, Charlie. This is a case of corruption of the police force.
The Tories fed from the same trough. William Hague, while in opposition, received £195,000 a year for his column in the News of the World and around £300,000 from Murdoch's HarperCollins publishing company between 2002 and 2006 for the biographies of William Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce. Michael Gove, who has heaped praise on News International and Murdoch personally – "a force of nature", a "great man" – was paid an unspecified advance by HarperCollins for a biography of the 18th-century politician Viscount Bolingbroke. Between 2005 and 2009, Gove was paid £60,000 to 65,000 a year for articles in the Times.
This hospitality grew exponentially after the 2010 general election when one quarter of all such hospitality provided to 10 Downing Street staff in the first seven months of the coalition government came from News International. In the 14 months following the formation of the coalition government, when News Corporation was seeking to take over BSkyB, Cameron met News Corporation editors and executives 15 times, and attended five events and three parties organised by the company.
Paranoid and dictatorial
IT IS CLEAR from this book and the newspaper reports and articles which have followed in the wake of the scandal, that the newspaper ‘barons’ – not just Murdoch but those who control the rest of the press – possess colossal unchecked political power which they do not hesitate to wield to achieve their aims. In particular, they will be ruthless in using this to denigrate and attack any force, organisation or personality which in any way threatens them and their system.
The Financial Times admits: "Mr Murdoch is hardly the first media baron to exert influence over Downing Street; Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook set the template, wielding what a despairing prime minister Stanley Baldwin famously described as ‘power without responsibility... the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’." (28 April 2012)
Murdoch expresses the same point less prosaically: "‘You tell the bloody politicians what they want to hear and once the deal is done don't worry about it’, ran one quote in Thomas Kiernan's biography, Citizen Murdoch. ‘They're not going to chase after you later if they suddenly decide what you said wasn't what they wanted to hear. Otherwise, they're made to look bad and they can't abide that. So they just stick their heads up their asses and wait for the blow to pass’." (Observer, 29 April 2012)
Murdoch’s barely concealed contempt for politicians is widely shared by the press barons. This was indicated by the chairman of the Daily Telegraph’s company, giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry. He had texted Cameron before the last election to ensure that the "Conservative leader speak to the editor of his newspaper every day during the campaign to ensure his party's message was getting across in the broadsheet". (Guardian, 24 April 2012) He added that, if Cameron "wanted to get the attention of the editor [of the Telegraph] and wanted to get his message across in the most efficient manner, he should make a habit of phoning him on a daily basis".
Who is influencing whom? It is clearly a question of the press exerting pressure on the elected prime minister to carry out their demands rather than vice versa. Dial M for Murdoch, with its forensic analysis and numerous examples, spells this out. So did Cameron, who admitted during this crisis that "we all" were in fear that, if they stood up to Murdoch and the rest of the press, they could expect the full force of his power to be turned on the government. Much better to kowtow to the ‘Dirty Digger’ than to go into opposition to him. This is a virtual admission that parliamentary elections and the whole panoply of democracy is a sham.
Editors, who run newspapers on behalf of their owners, display the same paranoid dictatorial tendencies. A dismissed Sun reporter commented on their behaviour to the Leveson inquiry: "Some that I worked for often became pampered peacocks who only wanted to hear the word ‘yes’ and would shout and scream if they heard anything else. An example was when one editor I worked for sent his chauffeur 50 miles back to his home to pick up a bow tie he had left behind. No doubt the power and lucrative lifestyle that gives them front-row seats and free holidays helped to corrupt them – so that some editors totally lost sight of reality… As a result of this aggressive and grotesque arrogance, those in charge – the proprietors and the editors – came to believe that they could do and say whatever they wanted and remain untouchable".
AT THE END of Dial M for Murdoch, Watson and Hickman draw devastating conclusions that Murdoch is running a ‘shadow state’. In effect, what we have had in Britain is a Stasi-type outfit which has suborned big elements of the state, the police, journalists and broadcasting outlets – all of this with the full collusion of the present government. They state: "Many institutions failed – but there were individual failures too. The holders of high office failed in their duty to protect the public: the Scotland Yard detectives who ignored the bulk of wrongdoing; the PCC chairwoman who did not understand how the press actually operated; the Assistant Commissioner [of the Metropolitan Police] who did not open the bags of evidence; the Director of Public Prosecutions who did not read all the paperwork; the London mayor, who did not demand action from his police force; the Queen’s solicitors who knowingly continued to act for a lying corporation; the national newspaper editors who persistently avoided the story; the BBC executives who failed to devote resources to a national scandal; the cabinet minister who did not take into account a history of broken promises when supporting a £7 billion takeover; the Prime Minister who did not listen to warnings about his new director of communications, and whose government prostrated itself in front of a foreign tycoon".
And who is responsible for this? The authors conclude: "All prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron turned a blind eye when they should have intervened and allowed his dominance to rise, deal by deal, election by election".
All of this is true and is devastating stuff. But when the dust settles, even after the Leveson inquiry has reported, the power relationship between the press and the government – any government which remains within the framework of capitalism – will be fundamentally untouched. A few miscreants may go to jail, some ‘reforms’ introduced, but that will not guarantee a ‘democratic’ press. The questions must be posed in the debate over the scandal: how do we remove the undemocratic power of those who own the media and how do we transform the press into a voice for working-class people?
As we have pointed out previously (see: The Media Lie Factory, Socialism Today No.117, April 2008), only by taking printing press facilities and the media in general out of the hands of millionaires and billionaires and putting them in the hands of ‘the public’ – the working class, supported by the labour movement – will it be possible to establish a really liberated press and media. We do not want a government with a ‘state-controlled press’. We opposed, for instance, the takeover by the Portuguese government of the República newspaper in 1975, during the revolution. This was the newspaper supporting Mário Soares and the Portuguese Socialist Party at that time. The proposal to take it over – backed by the Communist Party and sections of the army – created the impression of a totalitarian takeover of the press. This was grist to the mill of the counter-revolution at the time. Nor did we approve of the takeover of oppositional press and television by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela more recently.
We do not want to own and control the Sun newspaper or the Daily Express, Telegraph, etc. If printing press and media facilities were democratically nationalised, this would allow full access to the press to all political parties and trade unions – perhaps in proportion to the number of votes they get in elections. This would be a vast improvement on the current position where, in the recent local elections in Britain, there was a virtual blackout of news of those candidates who stood for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Minorities presently denied a voice would have access to the press and media. This is the only way to guarantee, in reality, a ‘free press’.
The book by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman is proof of the inherently undemocratic character of the capitalist press in general and the barbaric Murdoch empire in particular. Murdoch is on the run. His company faces economic difficulties, and News Corp was forced to withdraw its application to take over BSkyB. It is not excluded that Murdoch and his family will be removed from control of News Corporation. This is only the beginning. We must remove the undemocratic control of the 1% who deny to the 99% a voice in the media.