Shame on all your houses

Giles Marshall 1.42pm

Hubris hits us all in time, so it seems. For decades Rupert Murdoch has bestrode the British political scene. Unencumbered by the menial requirements of your everyday voter - such as UK citizenship or the need to pay taxes - Mr Murdoch has wielded more power and influence over Prime Ministers, putative and actual, than any normal citizen. His editors have been the satraps of his power, the unelected viziers demanding preferred policies from a timid and beleaguered political class.

How things change. The crisis in journalism effected by the hacking scandal has been boiling under the surface for years but has burst on to the scene largely without warning. It is not only changing the way that things are done but shining a light on the darker corners of the British polity.

The Independent's Steve Richards has written a trenchant article today about these changes. He remarks on the extraordinary scenes of once fearful MPs lining up to attack the Murdoch ‘empire’ (it’s always an empire, isn’t it?), and his key henchmen and women. It is a fine read, suitably over the top and biting about the malign influence of News International. I wonder whether it could have been written the day before yesterday, even at the Indy, which along with the Guardian has admirably not shied away from coverage of the scandal.

Few can emerge with much credit from the disentangling of these dubious and illegal practices. The bulk of the newspapers have failed to produce any sort of investigation, a sorry state of affairs brilliantly and damningly described by Peter Oborne in an essay for the Spectator. The Guardian stands honourably alone in this regard and we can only speculate as to the pressure that newspaper has had to withstand both within and without the incestuous media world.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has remained a vapid eunuch incapable of action against its own. The political class, repeatedly confronted as it is by the vicious excesses of tabloid journalism, cravenly failed to take a stand (barring a few exceptions, notably Labour’s Tom Watson). Only now as the giant is on its knees are they starting to run towards it, kicking and punching and biting for all they are worth.

The Metropolitan Police’s role is particularly murky and itself the subject of a potential investigation. While quick to leap into action against politicians - for instance on cash for honours or MPs’ expenses - police officers have proven less enthusiastic to pursue the papers.

The shabbiest actions, however, are reserved for our leading politicians. From Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, the collective currying for Murdoch’s favour has been a ludicrous sideshow of lilliputian proportions. Blair’s flight in 1995 to an Australian junket with News Corp executives; Cameron’s decision to employ Andy Coulson and his wining and dining with Rebekah Brooks; Ed Miliband’s toadying at the News International summer bash and signing up another former Murdoch man, Tom Baldwin, as his press secretary.

The press wields enormous power. It has the nefarious ability to destroy the reputations of individuals big and small. Such are this country’s libel laws that journalists rarely need to apologise for their grievous errors. With the stroke of a pen or click of a mouse, journalists can cause enormous unaccountable damage and it is now starkly shown that they have been employing illegal means to intrude on private lives with the utmost indecency and impunity. While gleeful to demand the hides of politicians when they err, key figures in News International now simply slink away into their unfathomable fortress.

Will there be any justice? Will Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson et al face the comeuppance they so often demand of others? Justice, in this instance, has to be more than a mere inquiry or two into News International. Justice requires a root-and-branch review of the way that the press conducts itself.

One of David Cameron’s predecessors in Number 10, Stanley Baldwin, when under pressure from the Rupert Murdoch of his day, Lord Beaverbrook, commented that the press ‘had power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ He pointed to journalism at its lowest point. What the journalistic profession could and should be is eloquently summed up by Peter Oborne:

Unfortunately, we in Fleet Street have forgotten that the ultimate vindication of journalism is not to intrude into, and destroy, private lives. Nor is it the dance around power, money and social status. It is the fight for truth and decency.

If the result of this scandal is that journalism can return to these high ideals, rather than this tawdry state of affairs, then something good may come of it after all.

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