Another day, and yet again pretty much wall-to-wall coverage of the phone hacking scandal. Though personally I am growing tired of the story, there is no doubt that it is engaging political theatre. As Andrew Neil said last night on This Week, “even the Coronation Street script writers would think twice about making this sort of story up.” It has got everything: the reassertion of a disgraced political class, criminal activity, celebrities and a media mogul whose ‘empire’ spans much of the globe.
But when stories like this break, it is easy to become hysterical. I’ve always doubted the widely-held view that Rupert Murdoch is essentially a king-maker in the British political system; furthermore, I regard the idea that he, directly, has influence over non-media related policy decisions as little other than speculation. All of his businesses have, over the years, been receptive to the demands of their customers. The Sun taps in to popular opinion in a way that the political class often contend, so it does not seem beyond the realms of possibility that maybe Murdoch attempts to back the party and policies which he thinks his consumers want to win, rather than the consumers following his advice. In addition, the lack of an outright Conservative majority in the last election suggests that if he was a kingmaker in the past, he has perhaps lost his touch.
That aside, there is one key thing which bothers me about this whole affair, and that is the scope of the coverage it has generated. There is little doubt that the actions of the journalists in many instances was appalling – and has been rightly condemned across the political spectrum. But I find it difficult to comprehend that the full wrath of the remaining coverage has been reserved, thus far, for Murdoch and his corporation, when the police have also been heavily implicated in criminal activity. Rather than the News of the World buying information, how about we think about it as the police selling it to them?
I’ve no doubt the upcoming enquiry will uncover and resolve police behaviour, but it does call into question many of the policies which the previous Labour government were trying to introduce. It is unclear, for example, why state police should have been trusted to have access to a National Identity Card register, when it was frequently selling information about individual cases to journalists in a corrupt and insensitive fashion.
Ironically, many of the people most virulently angered by News Corp are the same people who support the concept of hacked and published state information via Wikileaks - so it does seem that the public appreciate the need for hacking activity to operate in ‘the public interest’ on occasions. The problem with this view is that many of those employed in our police force, who are meant to be protecting that same ‘public interest’, were actually involved in this scandal. The question therefore becomes: Who decides what’s in the public interest? You either allow a free press, prosecute criminals (journalists and the police) and judge wrongdoing on a case-by-case basis. Or you regulate and enforce state guidelines on the way the media operates, with the risk of undermining the chance of uncovering wrong-doing in the real corridors of power.
Given the choice, I know which I prefer.