The News of the World closure: trying to make sense of it all

Metropolitan Police officers are interviewing senior News International executives as part of their investigation into phone hacking by journalists. AAP photo. AAP

Where to begin? The closure of a 160-year-old newspaper, the arrest of the man who until recently was the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, the revelations that the Metropolitan Police, or at least some of its officers, were mired knee-deep in corrupt practices?

For me however, and I think for most Britons, the starkest aspect of this story is simply the picture of News of the World journalists listening to the voice messages of the then missing Milly Dowler (but as we now know, a murder victim) and then deciding which messages to use and which to delete, in order to make room for newer messages.

For those of us who have worked in, and around, journalism for the past three decades and more, it is a picture that it is hard to erase or understand. What happened to these journalists’ humanity, their common decency, even their common sense - given that they could well have been destroying vital clues as to her whereabouts?

Of course we know the answer – one word – Murdoch. No I am not blaming him personally, but I am blaming the culture and the climate he created, not just on his own newspapers, but in the way his “standards” infected the whole of what we once knew as Fleet Street. This infection took two forms.

First, there was an ever greater intensity of pressure on reporters to get the story, no matter what the cost. As Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator for the News of the World, who was jailed for his part in the phone hacking scandal, recently told the Guardian: “Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results.”

But it is Murdoch’s influence on the British body politic that has been, for me, the most malign of the infections - that this might now be cured, or at least become less virulent, as a result of the events of the last few days is at least one good outcome to emerge.

Since 1979 no British prime minister has been elected to office without the “blessing” of Murdoch and his papers.

His first political coup was to establish a close political relationship with Mrs Thatcher, then with Tony Blair, who famously, travelled thousands of miles to pay homage to the court of Rupert when still in opposition, then with Gordon Brown and finally, David Cameron.

Murdoch was described by Lance Price, deputy to Blair’s Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell, as the third most powerful man in Britain (after Blair and Brown); and Price made clear, in his book “Diary of a Spin Doctor” how new policy initiatives were almost invariably measured against the “How’s this going to play with Rupert?” yardstick. Even Gordon Brown’s successor, Ed Miliband, thought it appropriate to appoint Tom Baldwin, as his Director of Communications, a man straight out of the Murdoch stable.

But it was the appointment of Andy Coulson, as David Cameron’s Director of Communications, that proved to be both the high and eventually the low point of Murdoch’s influence.

Among others, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, warned David Cameron that, because of his association with phone hacking Coulson was “toxic”. Cameron chose to ignore these warnings. Now, with Coulson having been arrested for his alleged part in the phone hacking scandal, Cameron’s judgment is being severely questioned. No doubt he will survive but long-term damage has been done to his reputation, just as his continued close, and public, friendship with another former editor of the News of the World, and (at the time of writing) still head of Murdoch’s operations in the UK, Rebekah Brooks, has been almost as equally damaging.

But Labour and Tory leaders have not been alone in cowering before the might of Murdoch. There were reports, never denied, that MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, investigating phone hacking, were cowed from condemning News International because of fears that they themselves would become targeted by Murdoch’s newspapers.

So what is to be done, as Lenin, a man with much in common with Murdoch, was known to say?

Perhaps the clue is to be found in Hollywood – not in Murdochs’ Twentieth Century Fox studios but in the rival studios of Warner Brothers, home of the “The Wizard of Oz”. Towards the end of the film Dorothy is standing in fear of the Wizard who, unseen, booms out his orders to her; but that fear dissolves into contempt when she discovers that the Wizard, far from being the all-powerful giant of her imagination, is just a little old man with a rather large megaphone.

One can hope that a similar epiphanous moment dawns on British politicians, which could mean that the Murdochian Wizard of Oz might not actually be vanquished but will have been wounded where it hurts the most – in the political solar plexus.