Phone-hacking is not the magic bullet

by Dan Hodges

It was the Sunny ‘wot won it. “We killed the News of the World!”, screamed Liberal Conspiracy on Thursday afternoon, via a headline, replete with slammer, of which Rebekah Brooks would be proud. “Vindicated – a win for Labour MPs and the left online”, gushed the slightly more restrained Labour List; “Uncovering the catalogue of misdeeds by the paper, and the work in recent days to encourage advertisers to distance themselves from the News of the World, has been nothing short of inspirational”.

Thanks. I’ll find my inspiration elsewhere.

Now that the dust is beginning to settle over the ruins of what, in my unfashionable view, was a once great British newspaper, perhaps it would be a good idea to step back. Actually, screw it, let’s not. Let’s have a quick dance on the rubble before we get another News International title in our sights.

We may not be any good at winning general elections, but boy, are we good at shutting newspapers. Not that we actually wanted to. When we called on advertisers to boycott the paper, and then threatened those that wouldn’t, we didn’t want anyone to lose their jobs. They’re unfairly paying the price for the greed and excess of others, you see. It was Murdoch that closed the News of the World, not us. What do you mean we said we killed it?

Enjoyable though the spectacle of the British establishment eating itself alive may be to some, we are heading in to dangerous waters. And by ‘we’, I mean the Labour party.

First there is the News of the World closure itself. I don’t know the extent to which the ‘boycott’ influenced Rupert Murdoch’s decision to bellow “stop the presses” but let’s for argument’s sake take the claims of the twitter heroes at face value. I personally don’t want to live in a country where Vodafone and Tesco decide what newspapers I read. Nor, frankly, do I want that choice in the hands of the editors of Liberal Conspiracy, or any other self-appointed custodians of media morality.

There is a new political philosophy developing on the left which broadly translates as “if I don’t like what you’re doing I’ll fuck you up”. I’ll blockade your store, I’ll sit on your floor, I’ll shut your newspaper. Many of my fellow citizens value the services you provide, mind. But I don’t, so screw you. Here’s the new politics; bite on it.

That attitude’s bad enough on its own terms. But two can play the game. On Thursday, as Screwsgate raged, Sir George Young told the house of commons he would be asking the cabinet office to urgently review the government’s advertising contracts with the newspaper. Again, is that what we really want? The Tory-led coalition deciding on political grounds where to place its advertising revenue? If it is, don’t tell Trinity Mirror.

The excesses currently being exposed are indeed sickening. But the answer is a proper public enquiry, a proper police investigation and a robust regulatory regime. Not a cyber lynch mob.

Some have argued this is Labour’s opportunity. Pay-back for what the Murdoch press did to the Party in the eighties and early nineties. For expenses. For ditching Gordon for Cameron.

I’ve got some sympathy with that. And so in truth should the senior executives of News International. They’ve enjoyed their time playing hardball. They were exceptionally good at it. And they can’t really complain now they’re taking a pasting at their own game.

But revenge provides a shaky political platform. Just ask Rebekah Brooks. The decision to get Tom Watson for what he did to ‘her Tony’ was the biggest mistake of her life.

It’s a mistake the Labour party cannot afford to repeat. We now have a real opportunity to recalibrate the power dynamic in the relationship between politicians and the press. But that relationship will have to be maintained.

Those people calling for Ed to bypass the print media, announce he will reject any endorsement from News International titles or refuse to sip another glass of Murdoch’sVeuve Clicquot have to get real. Or a newspaper. You’ll find that these things remain quite influential.

Annoyingly, millions of ordinary working people who we would quite like to vote for us, actually read papers like the News of the World. Some of them even enjoy them. And despite the fire storm of outrage, they’ll continue to read papers like the Times, the Sun and even, (look away now), the new Sunday Sun.

Or perhaps we could just close them down as well? Hell, yes. Let’s shut up anyone who acts in a way or expresses a view we don’t agree with. We’re progressives after all.

What we’re witnessing isn’t a new beginning. It’s a classic, gold plated, jewel encrusted moral panic. Should we look to develop a more mature relationship with the producers of our major media institutions? Yes. Should we find more open and transparent ways of dealing with their proprietors than cosy talks on secluded south pacific islands? Yes. But the answer isn’t to throw our toys out of the pram and tell James Murdoch we’re not going to go to any more of his daddy’s parties.

Last Thursday could well turn out to be the newspaper industry’s 9/11. Or it may not. But ominously, the Labour party has already decided it is an event that will reshape the natural order.

According to the Guardian, Gordon Brown believes that had the allegations relating to the hacking of his records been aired earlier, “I’d still be PM”. Some of Ed Miliband’s supporters have described his robust response to the scandal as his “Clause 4 moment”. Some of the more excitable Labour MPs have even started speculating the arrest of Coulson could lead to the downfall of the prime minister himself.

No. The misappropriation of his children’s medical records was grotesque. But the country had long ago made their mind up about Gordon, and his party. Andy Coulson could have been caught stuffing a tape recorder down the back of Victoria Beckham’s trousers on election morning, and Labour would still have lost. Ed Miliband has played the crisis with a very sure touch. But he’s still the same Ed Miliband who was trailing Iain Duncan-Smith in the approval ratings. David Cameron has responded to the crisis with staggering ineptitude. But he will be deposed when he screws up the economy and turns our streets into a muggers paradise, not because he employed a dodgy press officer.

Phone-hacking is not the magic bullet. Because there is no magic bullet. By all means let’s surf the wave. But sooner or later, the tide will recede. And when it does we will not find ourselves storming back to power on the back of public revulsion towards Glen Mulcaire.

The Tories are on the back foot. So let’s exploit it. There is an opportunity to genuinely address the abuses of power by the press. Let’s seize it.

But let’s not lose sight of the issues that really confront us, and the British people. And let’s not make the mistake of spending the next six to twelve months helping Cameron produce a smoke-screen to the real problems facing the country.

Some may hate the News of the World, and all it represented. Fine. Don’t mourn its passing. But remember that the stories that infuriated, even appalled you, resonated with millions.

Like it or not, Murdoch and Brooks reached people. Yes, their touch was stony. But we need to reach those people too.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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9 Responses to “Phone-hacking is not the magic bullet”

  1. Samuel Dale says:

    Good piece – lots of hubris in the Labour party at the moment. Ed has done well on hacking but it’s four years to the next election. The Murdoch press will put his head in a lightbulb and give him hell – a price worth paying to speak out now but a difficult fact nonetheless. More than that though there will be other crises and as always it’s the economy, idiots. Let’s “ride the wave” but not lose perspective.

  2. matthew bond says:

    I sympathise with much of what you say. The closure of the News of the World was vandalism. Especially in the current environment we should not be welcoming the axing of institutions. If the News of the World can be shut in a second why not a hospital, school, university or any other organisation. It’s a precedent that stinks. I also think the left’s antagonism to News International has been used as a fig leaf for their failure to connect with British voters. It is soothing to say we only lost because we had an unsympathetic media that spread lies about us but I can’t think of an election we lost (or won) where it really was the media’s fault. Even though the media is not as powerful as many think it is you are also right to point out that modern political parties (including Labour) need to engage with the media if they are going to stand a chance of winning an election. Eventually the Labour Party is going to have to start talking to those it is currently attacking and should be preparing itself for that day.

    I do think, however, you gloss over a number of legitimate bases for the ire being directed at News International. The extent of the illegal practices and the potential they have for corrupting British society are real. Labour should take a hard line on these practices. It is hypocritical and elitist if Labour is saying that we should be tough on yobs terrorising local neighbourhoods but executives of mega media corporations can hack a child’s medical records or bug police officer’s phones without retribution. I also take your point that Labour can be snobbish in its attitude to the content of tabloid papers but shouldn’t a political party be a bit highbrow. Just as nobody would respect an English teacher who only spoke slang, Labour would seem shallow and opportunist if it did not put some distance between itself and tabloid opportunism. The danger, which you point out, is that Labour thinks it is possible and desirable to eliminate tabloid opportunism rather than standing above it.
    In sum, you are right that the all out Labour hostility to the rightwing tabloids and the gloating over the News of the World closure are dangerous, but you are in danger of advocating a response that is too tepid and accommodating of elite media power. Labour needs to find a way of voicing real public outrage and offering workable solutions without seeming petty, vindictive and paranoid.

  3. Mike Killingworth says:

    What have you got against Sunny Hundal?

  4. Steve Howard says:

    I think you’ve got it wrong, focusing on a minor skirmish like that of the demise of the NOW. Murdoch’s grand plan is clear. Ditch all the news papers, let them sink or be bought out by the likes of Harmsworth or the Mirror group and concentrate on TV.
    Thats where the revenues are and where he can play out his master plan to control the politics of this country and decide who gets rewarded. Once he has complete control of satellite commercial TV the terrestrial services can go take a running jump into the nearest ditch.
    He wont forget which advertisers were first to jump ship. And who will they depend on to reach that Europe wide audience (let alone those in GB). he will in effect be like the |Chairman of Dixons when he put paid to Alan Sugars attempts to rival Microsoft with his word processors in the 80’s. If he decides not to allow adverts froma particular company he can bring them down. Lets face it who owns these companies? the Tory party by and large. So Rupert or son of Rupert in a decade will decide who runs this country and who lives or dies. In effect Darth Vader will be master of the Empire !!!!!

  5. Dan Hodges says:


    I love Sunny.

    If he didn’t exist I’d have to invent him.


  6. AnneJGP says:

    This is a really good piece, Dan. Thank you, because I’ve been waiting for someone to tackle the subject.

    I started coming to Labour-Uncut because I very much want Labour to become again a party I feel able to vote for.

    The Tories are on the back foot. So let’s exploit it. There is an opportunity to genuinely address the abuses of power by the press. Let’s seize it. (Dan, in the article above.)

    “By taking the battle to Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband has almost magicked away New Labour’s 13-year courtship of Rupert Murdoch, while stamping his own authority on what he is presenting as post-Murdoch politics. So far, so good.” (The Independent, quoted in the News Review which precedes Dan’s article.)

    Actually, the unethical media is a side issue in all this, only the media is so self-absorbed it hasn’t noticed there are also fundamental questions about police, Civil Service, NHS – the list goes on.

    And apparently, all this was known to government – the Labour government – years ago, and yet they did nothing about it. They left it to grow & thrive & establish an even tighter stranglehold on the nation’s affairs.

    Can’t anybody in the Labour party see that each of these two statements are crying aloud the party’s dereliction of duty whilst they were in government?

    Apparently not. Now someone else is faced with the mess we left behind us – wow! here’s our chance! Ain’t Opposition great?

    Dear God, you may even be able to exploit the mess you left behind to con voters into voting you back to power.

    That’s not the Labour party my parents & grand-parents were proud of.

    You are right to say the excesses being exposed are sickening, Dan, but it’s the light being thrown on the Labour party that makes me feel ill.

  7. Liberal Conspiracy has to be a bit nutty to think it closed the NoW. It was the advertisers. And the pressure of social meida behind the advertisers. NoW was, at times, a fine paper. Those who can sleep easier now it is closed include the sleasbags which will not be explosed in future editions and which other tabloids may be more cautious about exposing. But Ed is on a fine rightous rant. And hats off to MP’s Bryant and Watson. More power to select committees.

  8. Mike Killingworth says:

    Dan, that’s just what Eugene Terre’Blanche might’ve said about Mandela or any other ANC leader. Still, you just carry on with your sordid little project to turn Labour into UKIP Mark 2.

    Let me guess – if Labour could make only one gain at the next GE you’d want it to be Brighton Pavilion, right?

  9. Leon Wolfson says:

    Ignore the real anger, and the will of the people involved in civil disobedience like UKUncut, and all you’ll do is end up with them deciding there is nobody they can vote for, rather than Labour being their “reasonable option” in politics.

    The News of the World was never going to survive becoming an albatross to Murdoch. Thinking otherwise is silly – all that may have happened is the timing moved a few weeks.

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