by Anthony Painter
When information empires become too powerful they have to be broken up. News International and connected companies have become too powerful. They should be broken up.
Tim Wu’s The Master Switch details many such moments in US history where communications and media companies have reached a size where they dominate the marketplace and begin to infect public and cultural space. Courts or the federal government have stepped in to either break up or place such behemoths in a regulatory stranglehold. It happened when the Nixon administration began the break up of AT&T in the 1970s for instance.
All this begs the immediate question: what is too powerful? It can take a number of different forms. In the case of News International, it is its ability to subvert democratic process and divert law enforcement from its proper course. In other words, it’s not the morally reprehensible and criminally abhorrent phone hacking that occurred at the News of the World per se. It is the fall out from hacking that makes clear the degree to which News International and the News Corporation have been able to prevent due process from occurring and its capability to resist political and public revulsion at its behaviour. What form does this seeming abuse of power take? There are four main aspects:
First, and most seriously, there was the police response. This works at an individual level, eg the payment of police officers. That in itself would not indicate an abuse of power; it would simply be corrupt. The broader point has been the dilatory response from law enforcement agencies to what seems to be evidence of institutionally sanctioned law breaking. Why would the police not conduct a proper and thorough investigation? For many reasons, but one must undoubtedly be a culture of tolerance for criminally wrong behaviour of a major news organisation. This is a smoking gun of undue corporate power.
Second, the response of News International itself has been one of ultra defence. They have conceded ground only where they have had to. They are transparent only about that which they have been caught out on. It’s like a shop-lifter denying all until they are confronted with the CCTV footage then confessing to all that is on the footage, miraculously producing the stolen goods, but stopping there. Nobody’s fooled. What is clear is that this type of behaviour was systematic to the degree that it is inconceivable that senior executives and editorial staff can not have known what was going on. Either that or they were deliberately and stubbornly non-inquisitive. That in itself was a negligence that would facilitate law-breaking activity and cause upset to families in a state of shock, panic, or grief.
Third, the organisation has embedded itself within networks that surround the upper echelons of the British government. This goes beyond simply good press relations. Labour is also implicated here. It becomes a cosy relationship that eliminates the distance that objectivity and scrutiny requires. This corrupts both the media outlets involved and the politicians themselves. It is a classic identifier of a too powerful enterprise. Peter Oborne brilliantly outlines David Cameron’s cultivation and congregation of a ‘Chipping Norton set‘ This set, of course, includes Rebekah Brooks. Their families are so close that they dine over Christmas and go horse-riding together. At the same time, the government is adjudicating a competition inquiry into the full takeover of one of the Murdoch companies of another, further concentrating and consolidating his power. No wonder the Sun described David Cameron as ‘our only hope’ on the day of the general election last year.
Finally, when the whole thing blows open, there is the response – or lack of it – from News Corporation to outrage. Their ability to basically flip the bird at the British public is probably the clearest indicator of undue power that we have seen. Rupert Murdoch’s single response has been to issue an evasive, misleading statement that failed to even apologise for the actions of his paper. He has resolutely refused to dismiss Rebekah Brooks despite this wrongdoing and criminal activity taking place on her watch. She was on holiday at the time she claims. Well, there were lots of times so there must have been lots of holidays. Even more arrogantly, Brooks is heading up the internal investigation into the matter. Well, she is better placed than anyone else to get to the bottom of this. For that reason, it is inconceivable that she will get to the bottom of this.
Over the past few days, this scandal has taken on an Evelyn Waugh like quality. The Chipping Norton set is a self-imagined, modern and vulgar form of the lost English nobility of Brideshead Revisited. This is the maturing of the bright young things, libertines who were born to rule and be powerful. Or to give them their proper Waugh moniker – Vile Bodies. And, of course, the news driving ethics of the News of the World were foretold in Scoop! Every which way you turn, you see a group of people who imagine themselves as glorious. The gap between their self-belief and the reality we are now seeing is as wide as that between the News of the World’s ethics and the virtuous function of an investigative press that holds power to account.
I’m afraid that this has gone beyond what Boris Johnson has described as a scandal “whipped up by The Guardian and the Labour party“. It is nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch as businessman or as an individual or about his politics. It’s about the over-weaning power of a media empire that seems willing to flex its muscles to infect politics, public discourse, and law enforcement agencies. The point is not to join all the dots painstakingly one by one. It is to say: this media empire is too powerful; it is time to take action.
There has been much clamour to widen the scope of this to broad brush conversations about the media as a whole. No doubt, there are other parties in the media guilty of wrong-doing. The difference in the case of News International is that having committed wrong, it was then able to use its power to protect itself. It drew critical public institutions into its web of power in the process. It still refuses to adequately respond. Not allowing a takeover of BSkyB is only the beginning. It is time for the company to be split up and its power dispersed. Then we might get the diverse, ethical, creative and honest independent media that we deserve.
Anthony Painter is an author and critic.