Murdoch, mediacracy and the opportunity for a new transparency

Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire is reeling under the phone hacking scandal. AAP

Schadenfreude is the tough-sounding word that wins my vote for describing accurately how millions of people around the world are feeling about Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

For those who were long resigned to accepting its arbitrary influence, or who loved or loathed its products and style, something unprecedented is now happening under the noses of a global audience: a public trial of the inner working culture of News Corporation mixed with extraordinary revelations about its corrupting power to fix things in the hidden world of high-level business, policing and politics.

It is much too early to guess what happens next, but everybody should hold tight. Murdoch will almost surely try to use the crisis to his advantage, for instance by announcing the launch of a renamed successor of News of the World.

Spring cleaning of staff, yet more redundancies and a big push to tart up his company’s tatty image will figure high on his agenda. There’ll be more “We’re Sorry” ads and further “public affairs support and counsel” provided by the PR firms Edelman and Rubenstein Associates. Dirty tricks against opponents will happen; and there’ll be share buy-back and other schemes designed to convince investors and the rest of the world by numbers that News Corporation still has life left in its corporate body.

Much will depend on how well the battle-hardened digger Rupert can protect his flanks against the cross-fire of killer questions. Will he revive his bid to seize control of lucrative BSkyB? Might he try to win the day (as rumours in Britain suggest) by selling off or divesting his remaining three British newspapers: The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times?

What will Murdoch tell MPs this week when he makes an unprecedented appearance before the House of Commons media committee? And what exactly did Rupert’s darling and favourite executive Rebekah Brooks mean when she said, before her resignation, that more bad news was still to come? Will heir-apparent son James Murdoch be questioned and arrested by the police on either side of the Atlantic? Will the FBI and the United States Congress get serious about alleged wrongdoings, including claims that News of the World reporters tried to bribe a New York police officer to access telephone records of victims of the September 11 attacks?

If so, might Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and other News Corporation holdings suffer bodily damage in the heartlands of its empire? Is the company about to suffer post-imperial decline? We don’t yet know.

These are early days in the unfolding of Murdoch-gate but some things are already blindingly obvious. There have been brazen invasions (more than 12,000 at last count) of many innocent British citizens’ private lives; the principle of proportionality between the human right to privacy and the public right to know has been badly violated. The lid has been lifted on a corrupting culture of journalism.

The world’s oldest large-circulation Sunday newspaper, with its motto “Our practice is the fearless advocacy of the truth”, has been hoist with its own petard. Public indignation against News International is rife in Britain; such is the moral anger spawned by the scandal that disgruntled readers using Twitter accounts and Facebook pages have hurt sales by calling for a boycott of Murdoch-owned newspapers.

Thanks to enquiries mounted by rivals such as The Guardian and The New York Times, evidence is meanwhile surfacing of the widespread use by journalists of “pinging”, the technique of using police, the security services and mobile phone companies to track down individuals, for instance by determining which signal masts are being used by their mobile phone and triangulating its exact location.

There are revelations galore of high-tech “blagging”, the collection of personal information by journalists and hired private investigators by means that include bribery of employees of agencies that hold personal data. Whopping lies have been told by lots of important, publicly respected people. Golden envelopes have passed from journalists to police officers, without much remorse on either side.

When she was editor of The Sun, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) openly told a parliamentary committee that police bribery was routine. When reminded by the committee that such bribery violated the laws of Britain, she backtracked, saying that she had no personal knowledge of such bribery. “And will you do it in the future?”, an MP asked. She replied: “It depends.”

Here is a moment of opportunity, if ever there was one, for independent journalism and political writing with guts and integrity. In the coming days, weeks and months, far beyond the shores of Britain, the Murdoch-gate scandal will generate terabytes of public commentary. There will be multiple explanations, more than a few public confessions and floods of crocodile tears. Further arrests of the high and mighty can be expected.

The days when Murdoch pursued business through politics may be coming to an end. It is just possible that his empire will eat humble pie, forced onto its knees for many months and made to confess in the only language that it knows: tumbling advertising revenues, hedge fund standoffs, shareholder dissatisfaction and declining market value.

With a bit of luck and lots of political determination, long-range institutional reforms will happen in Britain. The planned takeover of BSkyB will be scrapped. The Press Complaints Commission, a gummy relic of the age of unfettered markets and Thatcherite self-regulation, will hopefully be replaced by a monitory body with watchdog and barking dog powers. Statutes such as the Criminal Justice Act 2008, which provides for prison sentences for illegally obtaining personal information without the owner’s consent, might well be activated for the first time.

If Murdoch-gate is to result in things positive and lasting then something else must happen: a detailed and sustained muckraking investigation of the decadent relationship between high-level politics and the media. The subject of decadence has suddenly come onto the political agenda in Britain in recent days.

Under intense pressure from inside and outside the coalition, the Cameron government has announced that an official committee of enquiry will soon be set up. David Cameron called for an end to the “cosy” relationship between politicians and the media, and clearly was forced to do so after his first director of communications, Andy Coulson, former editor of News of the World, was arrested.

When asked whether the enquiry might examine his own close encounters with the media, for instance his meeting at Number 10 with Rupert Murdoch just hours after last year’s election victory, Cameron prevaricated. “There may well be room for more transparency”, he said.

The government enquiry chartered to investigate the precise meaning of such bland generalities will probably not report until 2013, by which time memories of Murdoch-gate may have faded. That would be a great pity, for the largest significance of these breathtakingly British events is the chink of light they’ve suddenly thrown onto the tangled webs of hidden power connecting senior politicians, top journalists, public relations agencies and other bodies of persuasion.

Bits and pieces of evidence are in abundance. In leafy Oxfordshire, for instance, David Cameron lives within spitting distance of dinner party friends who include Rebekah Brooks, Sunday Times columnist Jeremy Clarkson and public relations spinner Matthew Freud, who is married to Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth.

During the Blair years, the players were sometimes different, but the tightly-linked patterns were much the same. Careful behind-the-scenes courtship by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson won the support of the Murdoch empire in good time to help New Labour to victory in 1997. Both Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s director of communications, worked hard to spin the relationship, which featured characters like Matthew Freud and Rebekah Brooks, who became an excellent friend of the Blair household and a regular visitor to Number 10. Blair’s spokesman Tim Allan left that address and was installed as head of corporate communications at BSkyB. Blair’s excerpted memoirs were published by The Times. And so on.

The problem is how to make good historical sense of these connections. Are they proof of carefully-planned craven conspiracies? No. Things are not so simple. Are they a peculiarly British problem? No. They are best understood as symptoms of a much deeper decadent trend that now plagues nearly all democracies - a trend that is dragging us in the direction of mediacracy.

The pun is much more than a pun. For want of a better term, it highlights the way 21st-century democracies are coming to resemble heavily-mediated political oligarchies whose tangled webs of top-down power thrive upon back-channel links and moonlight dealings among elected governments, influential journalists, political consultants, think tanks, lobbyists and public relations firms. These webs of power are normally invisible to citizens’ eyes.

In Obama’s United States and Gillard’s Australia, just as in Cameron’s Britain and Berlusconi’s Italy, the undercover “skills of media management” (Alastair Campbell’s words) and heavily manipulated, aggressively sensationalist and fast-changing publicity cycles have become routine. These forces shape and distort electoral politics and representative government, and unless there is a crisis on the scale of Murdoch-gate they do so arbitrarily, without public monitoring or legal restriction. That’s why they are bad for democracy.

Democracy is after all an unending experiment in making power publicly visible and accountable to citizens. Using elections and extra-parliamentary monitory devices, it seeks in the name of equality to bring the powerful down to earth. Hence the many challenging questions raised by the Murdoch-gate affair.

What needs to be done in the fields of journalism, law and civic engagement to counteract the decadence of mediacracy? Are there new ways of opening up closed information circuits to citizens, so that democracies become more than pale shadows of their own fundamental principle that secretive power is dangerous, and that decision makers should therefore be subject to continuous public scrutiny?

In the age of the Internet, can laws embody and protect the principle of proportionality between the human right to privacy and the public right to know? What role is there for “muckraking” online news and information platforms in exposing the “revolving doors”, the closed circuits of information in which democratically elected governments now come regularly wrapped?

Should these independent platforms be entitled to legal protection and public funding, just like their public service broadcaster predecessors? Can bodies such as press councils include a popularly elected component? Can they be fitted with much sharper democratic teeth?

Surely these are among the great political questions that Murdoch-gate has suddenly posed, not just for citizens in Britain, but for the sake of democracy in the rest of the world.