Murdoch Phone-Hack Shocker: Capitalism Eats Itself

By James Heartfield, 27 July 2011

The phone-hacking scandal hasn't only revealed the true sleaziness of Britain's establishment, but also the resounding hollowness of a post-ideological elite held together by little more than self-interest - writes James Heartfield

60 Metropolitan Police officers have widened their investigation of News International to take in the rest of the national press.

The Government has appointed the Right Honorable Lord Justice Leveson to enquire into standards in the Press, and proposals include a licensing system for journalists and newspapers.

Rupert Murdoch, Chief Executive of News Corp, and his son James, were called to explain themselves before a Parliamentary select committee.

Rebekah Brooks, Chief Executive of News International, was forced to resign, and later arrested by police.

Metropolitan Police Chief Sir Paul Stephenson resigned after questions about his links with News International journalists.

Assistant Commissioner John Yates resigned after he was accused of dragging his heels over the enquiry into News International.

The Prime Minister continued to face questions about his ex-press secretary Andy Coulson.

Police said there were ‘no suspicious circumstances' after News of the World whistle-blower Sean Hoare was found dead.

Britain's best-selling newspaper, The News of the World, published since 1843, was closed on 10 July 2011.

The News of the World made many enemies for its muck-raking and reactionary campaigns, even before it was investigated for breaking into the phone accounts of hundreds of politicians, celebrities and even murder victims and their families. It was by July 2011, in Rebekah Brooks' words, ‘a toxic brand'.

Image: The News of the World takes its gracious leave of the media stage

Still, those who take pleasure in the police investigation into and closure of The News of the World, or who look forward to a ‘reform of the press' coming out of Lord Leveson's Committee of Enquiry, are missing the point. However reactionary News International's role in the British political scene has been up until now, the working through of the scandal can only lead to a much more state-regulated and unfree press. Those looking forward to the end of the Murdoch dynasty at News Corp might be glad to see it bend to the ‘rules of corporate governance' - only to find that the de-personification of capital makes it no more human. The resignations of senior police officers might seem like good news, but as we can see, police involvement in the media has been greatly expanded under the current series of investigations and forthcoming inquiries. Nor, indeed, is the outcome of the current scandal likely to be a more open political process, but rather one that is hidden behind judicial inquiries, police investigations and official procedure while the public is distracted by a succession of manufactured scandals that blow up and pass like storms.

A Breakdown in Ruling Class Solidarity

The trigger to the reopened investigation into News International was evidence in the trial of Levi Bellfield for the murder of Milly Dowler. Before this, the Metropolitan Police Force had resisted calls to re-open the investigation. As is now clear, though, the Met had been holding extensive evidence of illegal phone-hacking since long before 2009. Whatever the trigger, the heightened drama of the investigation has been driven by a breakdown in the close relations among the establishment, in particular between News International, the Metropolitan Police, the ‘political class' - Number 10, the opposition and MPs on the Culture Select Committee and the Judges. What had been for many years a close-knit establishment broke down as each attacked the other. That was how the chairman of News Corp ended up being pilloried by MPs alongside senior Police chiefs as they were bundled out of office, while a hastily revived operation Weeting trawled through The News of the World's computer records as hacks turned out the lights for the last time.

Image: All work and no play - Rebekah Brooks at the coal-face

Contrast those scenes with what had been happening only a year earlier. The new Prime Minister David Cameron appointed ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his Press Secretary, and, like his predecessors Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, held a succession of private and social, meetings with Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. Just last year Cameron stood down his Business Secretary Vince Cable from looking at News International's bid for a 61 percent share in satellite channel BskyB after the Liberal Democrat was secretly recorded by Telegraph journalists saying he might not back the sale. At the same time Met Commissioner Stephenson and Assistant Commissioner Yates held regular meetings in a wine bar to discuss how to manage news stories. At that time the Metropolitan Police employed 69 press officers, about a third of whom had been or were working for News International. Police officers regularly sold information to journalists at News International, and at other newspapers. The police officer who had been in charge of the phone-hacking investigation, Andy Hayman, was working for News International, writing in The Times that there was no real problem.

There were a few testy arguments leading up to the point that this den of thieves truly fell out.

In 2007 Assistant Commissioner John Yates had the Prime Minister Tony Blair interviewed under the Cash for Honours investigations, which arose out of allegations published in The Sunday Times (the £773,177 investigation ended without charges).

In 2008 Metropolitan Chief Police Commissioner Ian Blair, who had been closely associated with Prime Minister Blair's ‘War on Terror' and the shooting of Jean Charles De Menendez, was forced out by the new Tory Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Shortly afterwards, Ian Blair's replacement, Sir Paul Stephenson, had shadow Home Office Minister Damien Green arrested and his offices in the House of Commons searched, investigating official leaks (no charges followed).

The same year the Lord Justice Latham and Mr Justice Blake at the High Court ruled in favour of a Freedom of Information request by Heather Brooke for the publication of MPs' expenses - before The Telegraph newspaper published a complete record it had bought from a civil servant.

News International's News of the World and The Sun newspapers followed the Telegraph's lead, creating a press feeding frenzy over MPs expenses that led to MPs Elliot Morley, David Chaytor, Eric Illsley, Margaret Moran and Jim Devine being charged with criminal offences.

News International Journalists warned Labour life peer Tom Sawyer that he would never be forgiven for leading moves to unseat Prime Minister Tony Blair, and that Rebekah Brooks would go after him. Then News International's Sun newspaper pulled its support from Prime Minister Gordon Brown with the headline ‘Labour's Lost it'.

In these public scandals the code of trust that binds the British establishment together has been eroded. To dodge the criticisms, players tried to shift the blame onto others. Different players hoped to ride the scandals, leveraging their own position. The major political parties tried to embarrass each other, drawing in the press and the police - and also the judiciary. The judges sought to increase their own authority with ever wider rulings encroaching on the historic sovereignty of parliament. The police, too, finding themselves under much closer scrutiny, had an interest in pushing back against the politicians.

And in most of these public scandals, the MPs, ministers, police chiefs and public officials all suffered exposure in the popular press, led by the News International papers, The News of the World and The Sun. Of course the problems with MPs expenses or the shooting of de Menendez were not created by the newspapers, and indeed The News of the World was not alone, but backed up by The Mirror, The Daily Mail and other papers. Still, well-known public figures knew and dreaded the newspaper feeding frenzy, and the biggest shark in the pool was The News of the World.

Why the Thieves Fell Out

The reason that the British establishment are struggling to keep up a united front is that they are no longer faced with a common enemy. The British political establishment was forged in the years of class struggle, as a way of making sure that the working class never took power. Behind the mask of parliament, the police, judiciary and civil service made sure that real power was kept in the hands of the elite. Newspaper barons made their fortunes selling to the masses, but always kept on the side of the powers-that-be. The long Cold War era gave the elite a common mission that made sure that they would not be tempted to break ranks in the face of the enemy.

Political engagement has been in decline for many years, and mass political parties, allied to trade unions or to big business, and other mass civil society organisations, are history - class struggle is the one thing the political elite are agreed they want no part of. And as they have relaxed their guard against outside threats, the elite have discovered that less binds them together than they thought.

The Myth of News International

Rupert Murdoch's British media holdings grew as he took advantage of the changed political climate. He bought The Times in 1981 after journalists went on strike. Later he forced through the new print technology with a transfer to a new plant at Wapping that destroyed the printers' union in Fleet Street. Then later he bought up British Satellite Broadcasting and broke the monopoly of the major broadcasters. In all of these conflicts Murdoch cemented a friendship with the Conservative government committed to ‘deregulation' of the media. ‘I speak as more than an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, I speak as a person grateful for the opportunities this nation has given me - and the opportunities she has created', Rupert Murdoch said at the first Margaret Thatcher inaugural lecture on 21 October 2010.

Image: Murdoch removes his jacket at the parliamentary phone-hacking hearing after eating humble pie

Murdoch's business strategy was echoed in the editorial stance of his newspapers, which pitched markedly to the right, beginning with the traditionally Labour Sun's support for Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The Labour Party's defeats in the general elections of 1983, 1987 and 1992 and the support News International gave the Conservative Party cemented the myth that it was ‘The Sun wot won it' (a 1992 headline) - that is, that no political party could win the election without the support of News International.

The News International Myth grew because of the fealty that British Prime Ministers paid to Rupert Murdoch, most notably Tony Blair, whose visit to Murdoch in Australia symbolised a political sea-change in his party. It was not only David Cameron's office that followed Blair in making obeisance to News International. The corporation's muscle meant that almost all public figures had to suck up too - by employing News International people, or giving them exclusive stories and insider tips. The police, having been exposed to unexpected criticism since the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry of 1999, got much more interested in press management. All kinds of public authorities and private companies massively expanded their public relations departments out of a fear of being engulfed in scandals.

It seemed as if the media ‘feeding frenzy' could descend upon anyone who did not pay attention to their public image. Trade Union leaders were mercilessly ridiculed, as were BBC chiefs and later ‘Greedy Bankers'. In 1994 even the Conservative government was sucked into a quagmire of ‘Tory Sleaze' as MPs affairs with researchers and lobby payments were exposed in The News of the World and elsewhere.

The key to understanding the Myth of News International's power is that the political class - indeed the entire establishment - felt pointedly out of touch with the masses. Cameron, Brown and Blair put up with the harsh judgements of Campbell, Coulson and Brooks because they thought they had their finger on the popular pulse. An inner doubt that maybe they just did not have the brute instincts to talk to the common man led the most powerful in the land to bow down before News International.

News International's Weakness

As News International's power was artificially inflated, the day it would burst open approached. The strident right wing editorial line followed by The Sun, The News of the World, Sky News and by News Corps' holdings in the US, Fox News and The New York Daily News in earlier days, can sound hysterical today, an echo of a Cold War politics. News International's popular touch is only relative. All print journalism sales have declined, and even broadcasting is struggling. Promoting a move to pay-per-view internet publishing, Rupert Murdoch said ‘we are moving from news papers to news brands' (‘Moving Beyond Dead Trees', Boyer Lecture, 2008). Insiders say that Rupert Murdoch still believes in newspapers, but his children, James, Elizabeth and Lachlan all see the future in broadcasting.

In the 1980s News International newspapers fed a growing cynicism towards party politics. By 2011 the same papers were operating in an era shaped by just that cynicism. Politicians were hardly even news anymore. Instead the papers were filled with celebrities, and with crimes stories, ideally with photogenic child crime victims. In the shrinking pool the hacks had to work harder for the big scoops, and were under pressure to get results. Blanket phone hacking was one way to try to garner stories.

Image: 'Who? Bent? Me?', Former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman practices his panto routine

The News of the World was used to the game of knocking down celebrities after building them up and thought it could handle the hostility of hacking-victims Sienna Miller and Hugh Grant. More difficult, given the paper's campaign for Justice for Milly Dowler, was the discovery that they had hacked into the murdered girl's phone. Rebekah Brooks' Midas touch was about to go into reverse, turning gold into shit.

The accumulated hostility News International had garnered in its rise to power was about to burst out. This time it was The News of the World that was at the centre of the Feeding Frenzy. Rebekah Brooks found out that there was no top people's club left to protect her - she had helped to rip it apart. But just as the old elite turned on each other, a new elite is in the making, and it is banding together in outrage at News International. The company that so symbolised 20th century entrepreneurialism was beginning to look like an old-fashioned family firm.


Tragically, the scandal that has engulfed News International can only lead in one direction, towards greater state control of the press. Just as The News of the World used to manufacture scandals, creating folk-devils out of migrants and paedophiles, the current scandal around The News of the World has made a folk-devil out of Rupert Murdoch himself. And just as those scandals could only be (momentarily) satisfied by the introduction of new laws to contain the problem, this scandal is to be addressed by a new regulatory framework for the press.

The Guardian newspaper is rightly proud of journalist Nick Davies' exposure of The News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It showed that investigative journalism is a powerful lever for the truth. But strangely, The Guardian is in two minds about the virtues of a free press: ‘The stampede to find tougher forms of regulation is understandable and, indeed, right.'(Guardian editorial, 8 July 2011). The Guardian's sister paper the Observer editorialises:

we must urgently consider radical reforms of the existing regulatory framework: [...] enhancing the investigative powers of the new body which is properly staffed and funded; and providing sanctions, including the power to levy substantial fines and insist upon prominent retractions of false claims. (Editorial, The Observer, Sunday 10 July 2011)

The willingness to accept greater press constraints comes about because of the scandal-mongers' contempt for the public - in particular those who bought the Murdoch press. On Newsnight, Carl Bernstein said this is not about the quality press, it is about the sewer and the ‘British public lapped it up' (19 July 2011).

The New Elite

One man who was delighted by the scandal at The News of the World was Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge. At the annual judges' dinner at Mansion House on 13 July 2011 he complained about MPs and newspapers encroaching on the power of the judges, thinking in particular of the ‘superinjunctions' judges made that were broken under parliamentary privilege:

This year there has been a steady flow [of attacks on the judiciary], sometimes by those who should know better and sometimes by those who choose to ignore what they know ...

Revelations about the phone-hacking scandal had created a crisis embroiling the police, politicians and the press, he said: ‘And now, notwithstanding the constant criticism of judges, public revulsion has led to the demand for a judge-led inquiry,' because judges ‘can deliver a carefully considered, honest but above all an independent answer'.

Image: The new elite?

The Lord Chief Justice is right that the outcome of the phone-hacking scandal is a move towards greater power for ‘independent' authorities over what we will be allowed to read. But the judiciary is only one of the independent authorities that are standing in for the absent political process. To get an idea of what the emerging new elite might look like, you could do worse than to look at the people sitting on Lord Leveson's inquiry.

Shami Chakrabarti CBE - the civil liberties campaigner and Director of LibertySir Paul Scott-Lee - former Chief Constable of the West MidlandsLord (David) Currie - former Chairman of OFCOMElinor Goodman - radio presenter and former Political Editor of Channel 4 NewsGeorge Jones - former Political Editor of The TelegraphSir David Bell - former Chairman of The Financial Times

Eight years ago, Lord Falconer outlined the change that was taking place in British public administration:

What governs our approach is a clear desire to place power where it should be: increasingly not with politicians but with those best fitted in different ways to deploy it. Interest rates are not set by politicians in the Treasury, but by the Bank of England. Minimum wages are not determined by the Department of Trade and Industry, but by the Low Pay Commission. Membership of the House of Lords will be determined not in Downing Street but in an independent Appointments Commission. This depoliticisation of key decision-making is a vital element in bringing power closer to the people. (Falconer, 2003)

The ‘depoliticisation of decision-making' and the creation of a technocratic administration was well under way in the last decade - but it has little to do with bringing power closer to the people. With the election of the Cameron government it did seem that trend would be pushed back, and many anticipated a new outbreak of class conflict over public spending cuts. However, Labour leader Ed Miliband has made it clear that class struggle is not an option for the opposition, and any parliamentary challenge will be over the personnel and scope of the ‘depoliticised decision-making'.

James Heartfield's <Heartfield AT> history, The Aborigines' Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909, has just been published by Hurst, and is available here: