Judging by the excitement in some circles it appears that there are an awful lot of people who believe that something fundamental has changed this week as the disgraceful antics at the News of the World finally bubbled to the surface of the nation’s political consciousness. Murdoch’s News International empire has definitely taken a battering and News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB appears to have suffered significant damage, if it is not fatally wounded. Ed Milliband’s decision to stick his neck out and make a direct attack on News International represents the first time since Labour’s nadir in the 1980s (and the evisceration of first Michael Foot and then Neil Kinnock) that a party leader has been willing to be openly critical of Murdoch and his henchmen. Whatever the outcome, Milliband has been braver than I expected and he has dragged other politicians and the political debate with him. That clearly marks a very significant – and welcome – shift in British politics and it may yet prove a very damaging blow to Murdoch.
But there have been wider, perhaps wilder, claims that this moment represents a more significant moment – a transformation in the way in which public debate is conducted, the victory of new media over traditional outlets. Paul Mason has written a characteristically thoughtful piece on the BBC website – Mason hedges his bets but he is clearly tempted to declare this a pivotal moment in our history and one doesn’t have to look far to find more triumphalist and more revolutionary claims.
It is, of course, possible that we really have reached a tipping point or that our politics has passed through a singularity and that “everything has changed”. Perhaps our past experience is no longer relevant to our understanding of how the future of politics will play out. And, of course, there’s always the temptation to overplay the novelty of any situation because it makes us feel more important – it makes us feel that we are witnessing truly historic events.
But before we accept the claims of the extraordinary we should demand extraordinary evidence. And, in that respect, there’s a few significant caveats that need to be expressed about the claims that this week’s struggle represents a decisive victory for some new form of social organisation, the so-called “network” over the tradiitional political “hierarchy”.
First, Murdoch hasn’t been defeated yet. At most, so far, he’s been inconvenienced and there are a lot of battles still to be fought. The decision today by News Corporation to demand that their bid for BSkyB is referred to the Competition Commission delays any possible decision for a minimum of 9 months – it sidelines that debate until next year and Murdoch no doubt hopes that, by that time, the public will have got bored and that News International will be able to reassert its power over the body politic.
It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the resources Murdoch commands and the power he has to influence debate. If, come the 2015 election, this current furore has passed, Murdoch has escaped serious personal sanction and even found a way to complete his purchase of BSkyB (and that remains a real possibility) there’s still the very serious threat that those who have inconvenienced him thus far could pay a heavy price. Today’s Sun and yesterday’s Sunday Times already contain attacks on members of Milliband’s staff. Those attacks are going to become more bitter and more intense as time goes on and their likely impact on the public cannot yet be judged. It has become fashionable to underplay the influence of Murdoch’s empire on electoral politics but come the next election the interests of News International, The Mail, The Express and The Telegraph will once again be in alignment and the ability of Sky, The Sun and The Times to orchestrate right-wing attacks across the media will still, it seems likely, remain in place.
Second, whatever the impact of the “network” on the way this episode has played out, the battleground for this struggle was constructed within the “establishment” (for want of a better word). There would have been no twitter foment and online frenzy without the work of two backbench Labour MPs (Bryant and Watson) who have pursued this campaign with admirable tenacity, The Guardian journalists who refused to let the story die and Private Eye who poked The Guardian whenever it wavered. Both MPs and journalists have been fighting this battle for years while most papers and commentators and the internet/twitter uses have ignored or tried to dismiss them. There was also persistent pressure by a number of public figures – Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, Tessa Jowell and John Prescott, amongst others – who took the decision to pursue the paper over phone-hacking through the British courts. Mason may concede that this scandal has been the result of an interplay of social and traditional media but he gives much of the credit to Britain’s regulated broadcasters. The truth is, however, that they gave almost no space to this story until it was brought to the boil by others.
Look at that list of actors: MPs, print journalists, the British courts. If this was a battle won by new social/political/communications structures, then those structures are built from some very familiar elements.
That’s not to say that the “network” hasn’t played its part. The ability to mobilise public opinion quickly and at a considerable volume certainly amplified the pressure on advertisers and thus accelerated the crisis that has enveloped Murdoch’s empire. The strength of the response surprised everyone – the media, politicians and, I think, the public. And there’s no denying the impact of this outpouring of outrage. But Mason is, I think, right in identifying the crucial role of traditional media in feeding the Internet frenzy.
Third, those who value an environment where politicians and public bodies can be held to account might not wish to dance too energetically on the grave of the News of the World. I shed no tears over its end but as the legal saying goes “hard cases make bad laws” and in a country that already has some of the most stringent restrictions on freedom of speech in the world (thanks, not least, to our ridiculous libel laws) the outcome of any review of press freedom is far from guaranteed to enhance public debate.
Finally, when we look towards an endgame for this current crisis, what solutions are the public demanding? Are we being marched towards an extra-parliamentary, beyond-the-hierarchy solution in which people are envisaging a new politics unrelated to what went before?
I see little evidence of that trajectory.
People are angry. They are demanding that “something” be done, but so far that “something” is very narrowly confined to demands that fall within the scope of existing political and legal institutions. They want News International punished through the courts. They want politicians to stand up to Murdoch and his people. They may even have sympathy for changes to the legal framework governing the British press (though when the practical details of press regulation have to be set down and proponents of “free speech” begin their impassioned struggle against “censorship” we’ll get a better idea of how deep that desire for change really is).
Still there is certainly evidence of a desire, albeit an unfocussed desire, for change.
What I don’t see is evidence that they’ve made up their mind to break the system. Or that the direction of the debate leads us to a system that has been shattered.
Murdoch is betting that in six month the passion that surrounds all this will have faded.
The man whose understanding of the modern media environment led him to hide his newspapers behind paywalls (bet he’s wishing he could get his point across without that barrier today) and buying MySpace probably doesn’t quite grasp how different the environment is from his heyday in British politics in the era of Wapping, the Falklands War and the miners’ strike. Nonetheless, Murdoch remains shrewd and dangerous and powerful and believing that he is already beaten or that his failure is somehow made inevitable by the irresistible flow of historical currents – perhaps propelled by some crude technological determinism driven by a faith in the power of new communications technology – would be a serious mistake.
What we should hope to get out of the current embarrassment of News International is a cleaner space for political debate. To achieve that goal we will need a more sustained campaigning effort than the Internet normally delivers. We need significant changes in the law – and good laws are not written in spasms of outrage (no matter how justified) but by measured progress, thoughtful debate and meaningful negotiation. It may be that, one day, our “networked” communications will be capable of delivering such a debate but I think anyone claiming that we are already there is either deluding themselves or hopelessly optimistic.
What is necessary now is to try and take the energy that has transformed the political debate and use it to drive forward a sustained campaign to change our politics. And that, of course, is the holy grail of online political activism. Campaigning resources such as 38 Degrees have scored some successes in harnessing public concerns about this government’s policies but so far these campaigns have been oppositional – that is to say they are primarily concerned with stopping things from happening. Whether it is now possible to build a similarly strong movement in favour of positive alternative policies remains to be proven.
My fear is that Murdoch is right and that, in six months, with a fundamentally sympathetic Conservative government, and with the public’s anger expended, things will go back to normal. He will get BSkyB (even if it costs him News International) and the approach of a general election will see the return to politics as usual with the right-wing British media regrouping and reasserting their control of the agenda-setting process.
My hope is that Milliband and some of the Liberal Democrats will press this opportunity to guide the debate into a process of fundamental reform of the relationship between press, public and politics and that process can harness and sustain the energy of those members of the public that have been outraged by what News International has done, ostensibly in their name.
My guess, though, is that well end up somewhere in between. We will get some reforms but they will not be radical breaks with the past. The public will eventually tire of this story and those who remain outraged will split and fracture when they are forced to make decisions about exactly how things should be changed. When proprietors, journalists and editors are faced with real policy proposals that limit their power and place restrictions on their freedom, they will not sit back and meekly accept their fate. And when political rivalries reassert themselves any fragile cross party consensus will disintegrate and the need to reacquire media support to win elections will sap the will to drive through radical changes.
I would be delighted, however, to be proved wong.