Britain has gone mad, or at least the tiny patch of Britain round Westminster. The Pentagon would call it a clusterfuck, an all-embracing, uncontrollable chain reaction that appears unable to cease. The new ecstasy theorists call it ‘whooshing’, when reason loses out to passion, and thought to imagination. As after the death of Princess Diana, every politician and commentator cries: “The world will never be the same again.”
The world usually is.
On Tuesday, Rupert Murdoch and his son were summoned before Parliament, and gave an eerie performance as an ageing father who had vaguely heard his son had done something regrettable in the family woodshed. Meanwhile British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to return from a foreign trip, like a tottering dictator called home by the politburo. The country’s top policeman and top counter-terrorism cop were forced into resignation. Two government judicial inquiries have been set up. Two Commons committees are in continuous session. The police are everywhere. Journalists and MPs are lying on the floor, kicking their legs in the air with glee.
Has anyone been murdered? Has anyone been ruined? Is the nation gripped by financial crash or pandemic, earthquake or famine? Are thousands homeless or millions impoverished? A squalid surveillance of the sort long conducted by the tabloid press went beyond what in this business is laughably called good taste and constituted a crime.
That everyone knew journalists and the police were engaged in petty barter does not make it acceptable, let alone legal. Nor is it edifying to know how far politicians and editors are in and out of each other’s houses. But it is not the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Nuremberg trials. The downtrodden are not marching against their great satan, Rupert Murdoch. They are more likely mad at losing their favourite paper. There is a limit to how much significance any event can carry without imploding into daft hysteria.
There are some silver linings to these eruptions. The death of Diana maelstrom pulled the royal family out of its introversion. The Iraq war revealed the alarming corruption of intelligence by politics. The NoTW affair has dragged those who own newspapers to answer for their custodianship before a parliamentary committee. There is no harm in those who dominate the media being called to account. Nor is the commercial rivalry that has driven this story inherently bad, if acknowledged. It is unsurprising that Murdoch’s fiercest critics should also be his fiercest competitors, notably the Guardian and the BBC.
Already the cock-a-hoop Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are calling for statutory curbs on media ownership. Labour leader Ed Miliband wants to break up Murdoch’s News International, presumably to stop it owning two daily papers. He might also have to tackle the Lebedev family, which has two titles, and the Daily Mail, which on one definition is now Britain’s biggest newspaper group.
It is hard to see what real purpose is served in, for instance, taking the Times from Murdoch. Its losses are reputedly so large it might close or be butchered by a new owner. Others have suggested a ban on papers being run for vanity rather than profit, being cross-subsidised or foreign-owned. Any such proposal would more likely see titles close than open.
Newspaper ownership has always been crazy and eccentric, dominated by ego and a yearning for glory. It seldom has to do with profit. If it had, the recent history of British newspapers would have been a miserable one. Murdoch’s influence on tabloid journalism has been dire, though he is hardly alone in this. His influence on the media industry in general has been that of a serial innovator — confronting unions, lowering production costs, pay-for-view TV and now paywalls. All newspapers have benefited from this, loathe though they may be to admit it.
None of this excuses misleading Parliament or hacking phones. But today’s storm-cloud of hysteria is a poor prelude to what could emerge from this, not a sensible attempt to redefine journalistic ethics but a back-handed attempt to restructure an industry.
The views expressed by the author are personal