Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Mediacracy: Rupert Murdoch’s “Toxic Shadow State”

Keith Rupert Murdoch, 2011. DonkeyHotey/Flickr

When Rupert Murdoch gives further evidence to the Leveson Inquiry this week it will mark another turning point in his public disgrace. The legal noose around the neck of News International, on both sides of the Atlantic, will also tighten, thanks to fresh revelations detailed in Dial M for Murdoch, a new book by Westminster MP Tom Watson and The Independent’s Martin Hickman.

The boss man’s appearance will stoke the sense that his media empire is responsible for something bigger and more publicly dangerous than hacking into innocent citizens’ lives. For some years, we’re beginning to see, Murdoch’s News International busily experimented with the dark arts of parallel government. It was in the dirty business of building a shadowy form of unchecked oligarchy that doesn’t appear in the textbooks. Let’s call it “mediacracy”.

The term is more than just a fun pun. First coined forty years ago by the Republican Party strategist Kevin Phillips, it’s a word we need to help track down and expose a hidden world of power not normally covered by journalists, or spoken about by politicians, or seen naked with public eyes. To speak of “mediacracy” is to spotlight the troubling point that we live in an age of organised political fabrication. It warns that all popularly elected governments today come wrapped in invisible webs of back-channel media contacts and closed information circuits. They operate within fields of power inhabited by journalists, consultants, lobbyists, think tanks and public relations firms. Their combined media management work is usually undercover. Citizens only see the symptoms: the heavily manipulated, aggressively sensationalist and fast-changing publicity cycles that are the new normal of high-level politics.

The trend is not describable through commonplace terms like “spin” or “propaganda”. Talk of the “manipulation” of elected governments by “big money” and “big business” misses the mark. The dynamics of mediacracy are more intricate. In power terms, it’s the resultant of many forces operating from within and outside government. The trend demands new political thinking and fresh frameworks of analysis. I try my hand in a just-finished manuscript called Media and Democracy in an Age of Decadence. It sees the forces pushing us towards mediacracy as corrigible trends. Stuff happens, controversies simmer, and dramatic scandals erupt. Sometimes media magnates are wrong-footed, journalists are arrested and ministers and whole governments are exposed, or forced to resign. Yet the book crosses swords with two groups of observers: those who think the digital age leads automatically to greater ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’; and complacent media scholars who suppose that mediacracy doesn’t exist, except in faraway “autocracies”, where media serve in effect as “propaganda” produced by journalists and other “lapdogs” of state power.

The Murdoch-gate scandal now unfolding beneath our pinched noses throws such presumptions into disarray. It shows that closed-system webs of information co-produced by politicians, journalists and various public relations specialists are part and parcel of our political reality. Tom Watson and Martin Hickman go so far as to accuse News International of running a “toxic shadow state”. They show how News Corporation staff spun webs of unmonitored exchanges among journalists, police officers, snooping private detectives, celebrities, innocent citizens and politicians within the Westminster parliament. The octopoid tentacles of this parallel state, we now know, extend to the harassment of MPs and public intellectuals, including our own Robert Manne, Tim Flannery and David McKnight. If Watson and Hickman have it right, News International even spied on its own senior executives.

Bizarre. It’s the stuff of absurdist fiction, perhaps a few pages straight from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The trouble is that Murdoch’s mediacracy is more than fiction. It’s dead serious real-world business, an unfolding political morality tale of what happens when profit, greed, amorality and hubris get the upper hand over toothy public scrutiny mechanisms and the rule of law.

Murdoch-gate applies the lie-detector test to Rupert Murdoch’s boast, delivered in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in October 2010, that News International “will vigorously pursue the truth - and we will not tolerate wrongdoing”. Murdoch’s appearance before this week’s parliamentary inquiry will do more than highlight the dog-and-pony show quality of this claim. It will show why mediacracy bodes ill for democracy, and why it’s not just a British or American problem. Let’s hope his cross-questioning is meticulous, and lengthy. For that will show why fearless public confrontations with the perpetrators of mediacracy are its best antidote - and why humbling those who’ve become much too big for their boots is vital for the survival and future flourishing of democracy.

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